SLEAFORD, England -- Mark Ireland doesn't know whether it is due to the weather or climate change, but one thing he is certain of is that over the past 25 years, a great deal has changed along the furrows of his farm in southeast Lincolnshire.
Farmers have always been gamblers, betting on the weather year after year, but climate change appears to be thrusting them into games with Mother Nature that they've never played before. Crop planting and harvest time have moved progressively earlier. Crop yields and rainfall patterns and amounts are different. So are the pests, diseases and weather extremes that people like Ireland must learn to deal with to stay in the "game."
"I don't know enough about climate change to say if that is the direct cause, but the way we have farmed has steadily evolved," Ireland told ClimateWire on a visit to his Grange Farm about 130 miles north of London.
"A quarter of a century ago, we could not have started harvesting until late July. Now, if we have not started by early July, I start to worry. The harvests are definitely earlier," he said.
On the 1,878-acre farm he runs with his brother James, he grows barley, wheat, rapeseed and sugar beets. While wheat and barley crop yields have risen largely through varietal change and have now plateaued, the sugar beet yield has shot up with the warmer winters.
But it is not just the growing season that has changed, but also the mix of pests and diseases that attack the crops.
"Orange blossom midge has become a problem at this time of year on wheat, but 15 years ago, we had never heard of it. The Saddle Gore midge is another problem we are starting to hear about. They tend to move here from the south," Ireland said. "Yellow rust is also becoming a real problem. But the recent dry winters have meant that eye spot, which likes wet soils, has not been a problem."
"The disease cycles are getting far faster, too. We are having to look at changing the treatment schedules," he added. "Who knows what will be happening in another 30 years? We may even move to grain maize, which is a much more southerly crop at the moment."
Less rain, more storm damage
Ireland has assiduously collected rainfall data, with amounts for the past 12 years showing huge year-to-year variations. But no matter whether taken on an annual basis or smoothed into a five-year rolling average, they point to a steady decline. Less rain is a problem on the farm's light, sandy soils.
But there is also another side to the equation: the increase in frequency of sudden squalls and downpours.
"In March, I was starting to get really worried about the oilseed rape because of the drought. Now it is looking really healthy after all the rain we have had. But with the high winds and sudden downpours we have been getting, I am worried again that if it gets knocked over, it won't have time to get up again before harvest, and we will lose a lot because the combine won't get to it," Ireland explained.
In England, as in most industrial countries, if crops are not upright so the mechanical pickers can harvest them, they remain in the fields to rot.
A short distance east down the road, Nick Loweth has a different set of problems on his 530-acre Abbey Park farm, whose deep, loamy soils retain moisture.
"Drilling [planting] has got earlier for wheat but a bit later for the oilseed rape," he said. "Disease has also attacked more crops than in the past. But I have had the best grain harvests in the past two years that I have ever had despite the dry weather."
Tempted by the warming seasons, Loweth took a plunge into soybeans a few years ago, but events proved that to be a premature move for the warm-climate crop. "It was a bit of a disaster, really," he said. "I knew a chap in North Yorkshire who grew asparagus for a couple of years -- that is 100 miles north of where it is now grown -- but it then failed."
No choice but to adapt
They are by no means alone. Farming Futures, a farming industry lobbying and information service set up to inform farmers about the implications of climate change and act as an information exchange for their experiences, says 40 percent of farmers say they are already affected by climate change, with 60 percent saying they expect to feel its impact this decade.
For Tom Osborne of Reading University, senior research scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science who models the global impacts of climate change on agriculture, farmers have no choice; they have to adapt where they can and change where they can't.
"Under scenarios of moderate warming, 1 or 2 degrees Celsius globally, crops in tropical regions will suffer in terms of yield, whereas at mid- to higher latitudes, they might benefit from a little bit of warming. But if you go beyond that, then they will begin to suffer yield declines, as well," he said.
Osborne said the crop varieties and farming practices in southerly regions could simply migrate north as the climate warms, with the limitations imposed by different soil types, and that at some point, northward migration would become impossible because of the terrain.
Where growing seasons get longer, crop varieties with longer growing periods could be selected to take advantage of the change and improve yields.
Crops already in the warm tropics, on the other hand, have nothing to fall back on, he said.
"The need there is to produce new varieties that are suitable for the new conditions. But there is a question mark there about how feasible that is and how quickly that can take place," he added.
Will the pollinators adapt to subtle changes?
One theory has contended that some plant species were immune to climate change and could therefore act as a storehouse of information on how they managed, where others mutated or died. This was recently dealt a blow by researchers from the United States and United Kingdom who found that those species previously thought to be stable were in fact changing, but in subtle ways.
In a recent paper, "Divergent Responses to Spring and Winter Warming Drive Community Level Flowering Trends," researchers demonstrated that species were changing at both ends of the growing season.
"What we found was that they are in fact sensitive to spring warming temperatures, which, naively, we would have expected to make them flower or leaf out earlier, but at the same time, they are also sensitive to winter and fall temperatures in the opposite sense," said Ben Cook, a NASA climate modeler at the University of California, Santa Barbara, lead author of the study.
"So while at the same time that these warmer springs would have caused these plants to flower or leaf earlier, the warmer falls and winters are causing them to delay flowering or leafing. For the most part, those two effects cancel each other out.
"From a larger ecological standpoint, many pollinators and birds are very tuned to the timing of plants in the spring. If this gets disrupted, particularly in complex ways where maybe some species are getting earlier and other species are not, then this could have important cascading effects through the ecosystem," he added.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500