November 17, 2021
Community Voices / How farmers can fight climate change
Stevan Harrell and Katherine Steensma

A flooded pasture at Steensma Dairy and Creamery west of Lynden during the atmospheric river event on Nov. 15 dramatically illustrates the storm’s overwhelming impact on farmland. (Katherine Steensma photo © 2021)

November 17, 2021
Community Voices / How farmers can fight climate change
Stevan Harrell and Katherine Steensma

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

In late June, the cows on Steensma Dairy near Lynden huddled in the shade of the barn. It was too hot to head out to pasture. But they were still too hot to eat, and at risk of losing milk production. Fortunately, for $50 at Home Depot, the resourceful farmers rigged up a misting system to cool the girls off until they could go outside again. (See “Community Voices / Addressing climate change in Whatcom County,Salish Current, Aug. 17, 2021)

Climate change has come to farms in Northwest Washington and across the world, and we can now expect hotter and drier summers, which will increase the stress on our land and already-stressed water sources. Wetter and warmer winters will likely bring increased flooding and a reduced snowpack. Fortunately, farmers here and elsewhere can be part of the solution to the current climate crisis. 

Climate change has brought a year of weather extremes for local cattle. In addition to this week’s flooding, the heat dome in June prompted farmers to rig up misting systems to cool the animals. (Katherine Steensma photo © 2021)

Agriculture is a key part of our local economy, and both Whatcom and Skagit counties have active farmland preservation programs. But there is another reason for preserving farmland: farms provide ecosystem services.

  • Pastures, cropland and orchards sequester carbon both in the growing plants and in the soil, preventing its escape into the atmosphere as heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
  • Livestock manure is the best fertilizer for our crops — it is not only better for soil quality, but also saves the greenhouse gases that are emitted in the manufacture of synthetic fertilizer.
  • Farmland absorbs rainwater from winter storms much better than do the impervious urban streets and parking lots that replace working farms when farmers sell out to developers. 

If we are going to maintain and enhance the economic and ecological value of our farms, however, farmers will have to adapt to climate change. In future heat waves, not only our cows but also our berries, bulbs and other crops will suffer stress again as they did this past summer. There will be more competition for less water in the summertime, and since other users — tribes and municipalities — also require water, everyone will have to explore ways to use water more efficiently, farmers included. If economic pressures make it harder and harder for farmers to earn a living, today’s farms will be tomorrow’s shopping malls and subdivisions, sequestering less carbon, allowing more runoff and flooding, wasting more water. 

How can farmers best benefit themselves and others in our fight against changes in the weather?

The general answer is, practice regenerative agriculture to rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity. Specifically, farms can promote sustainability in many ways. These include: 

  • Plant perennial crops (like our local berries and pastures) using low-till or no-till methods, to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases released when land is plowed. 
  • Implement rotational grazing to stimulate maximum pasture growth and carbon sequestration.
  • Use natural fertilizers, such as manure, rather than synthetic fertilizers made from fossil fuels. These improve soil quality and soil carbon sequestration in addition to reducing fossil fuel use. 
  • Cultivate a local market for our agricultural products. Farm stands, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, local restaurants and farm-to-school programs all reduce fuel use for transportation as well as promoting crop diversity.
  • Use biogas from dairy production to generate electricity right on the farm. Manure digesters can do this directly, or biogas can be fed into gas lines serving residential users, replacing fracked fossil gas.
  • Install wind turbines to generate electricity to power the farm and maybe sell the excess. 
  • Participate actively in research to develop more versatile cultivars, including heat- and drought-tolerant varieties of local crops. 
  • Find new crops that might be adapted to our area if it warms up a little. Already varieties of grapes grow here that would not have flourished even 30 years ago. 
  • Work collaboratively with local tribes, fisheries and aquaculture industries to protect streams, both to prevent loss of farmland to erosion and to protect our fish and shellfish industries.
  • Continue to improve water use efficiency. AgWeatherNet stations give real time data on rainfall and soil moisture in different locations to support decisions about when and how much to irrigate.
  • Encourage entry of new farmers when current owners retire or otherwise leave agriculture. Farm incubators such as Viva Farms in Mount Vernon and Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Everson help new farmers with techniques, land access, and equipment sharing.
  • Protect our remaining farmland from development by utilizing conservation easements when possible.

Many farmers are doing one or more of these things already, which bodes well for the future of agriculture here. There are many ways of adapting to extreme weather events and to climate changes in general, but as farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry pointed out, “I know … that the alleged causes of climate change — waste and pollution — are wrong. The right thing to do today, as always, is to stop, or start stopping, our habit of wasting and poisoning the good and beautiful things of the world, which once were called ‘divine gifts’ and now are called ‘natural resources’.”

Farmers who appreciate divine gifts or natural resources can play a big part in stopping this wasting and poisoning. 

Contributed by Stevan Harrell and Katherine Steensma

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.