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March 30, 2005

Conversations Among Farmers

Editor's note: This is the first post from guest contributor Tim Steury, who edits Washington State Magazine in Pullman, Washington, and works a small farm just south of Potlatch, Idaho.

Finally, we're getting some moisture in the Inland NW, at least enough to slightly loosen the knot gripping the stomach of anyone who makes a living by putting seeds in the ground. By the end of last month, the driest February on record, area farmers were genuinely panicked. Every conversation with our neighbor, who's been farming the surrounding land for four decades, was about the weather.

No different from usual farmer conversation, I guess. Just more intense. "Never seen anything like it," he'd say over and over.

So even though they spend more time listening to market reports and talk show windbags than climate scientists as they ride around in their tractors and pickups, these guys might be increasingly sensitive to news such as findings from this new study out of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

With colleagues at PNNL and Washington State University, natural resource economist Michael J. Scott conducted a decade-long study of the effect of global warming on the Yakima Valley. The Yakima Valley comprises 370,000 irrigated acres of apples, grapes, pears, and a host of other fruits and vegetables.

The model the scientists used assumed no overall change in precipitation, just water availability maintained by snowpack and reservoirs. They figured the effects by applying 80 years of drought data to their projections.

According to Scott, "The expected losses to agriculture alonge in the Yakima Valley over the next several decades will be between $92 million at 2 degrees centigrade warming and $163 million a year at 4 degrees." This would equal nearly a quarter of the total current value of the crop.

Scott proposes his modeling not as prophecy, but as a way to plan. Maybe Yakima growers should consider taking out more water dependent crops such as tree fruit and put in more grapes.

That sounds great, to a point. But we can drink only so much wine, even from the Yakima Valley. And over here, further east on the Palouse, grapes aren't an option. The winters are just a bit too harsh. But wait, it's warming, isn't it?

Maybe they haven't tuned into Scott's specific predictions yet, but farmers are paying attention. Even the Capital Press, not exactly a paragon of progressive agriculture or politics, ran a headline above the fold on a recent front page acknowledging the "reality" of global climate change.

We don't irrigate here on the Palouse. Still, maybe we'll see more farmers going to no-till to conserve moisture and buffer strange months like this February. Or maybe we'll see more hay or permanent pasture. Unfortunately, farmers here are discouraged economically from considering anything other than the traditional wheat, peas and lentils. Land values around here are artificially inflated because of subsidies, putting costs too high to grow anything other than subsidized wheat.

But you never know what another record dry month could do for people's thinking.

Posted by Tim Steury | Permalink

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