Gary Paul Nabhan is an eminent research scientist at the University of Arizona and the author of Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons From Desert Farmers in Adapting to Climate Uncertainty.

He recently wrote this article – Our Coming Food Crisis — in the NY Times suggesting strategies that US farmers should adopt to cope with the likelihood of more, and more prolonged, droughts and heat. More on those in a moment.

We think we’ve had it bad recently. In 2012, more than 1500 counties, about half of all the counties in the US, were declared national drought disaster areas. And 2013 could turn out as bad.

In the US, the main government response is to help affected farmers with payouts from federal crop insurance plans. Here in NZ, Finance Minister Bill English has recently observed that it’s “not sustainable” for the government to keep providing financial relief to drought-stricken farmers. Farming practices will need to adapt, he said to TVNZ’s Breakfast.

As we anticipate drier and drier conditions in Hawke’s Bay, what is to be done?

Our Regional Council’s one magical silver bullet is a dam serving at absolute best maybe 150 farmers and 25,000 hectares in Central Hawke’s Bay. Even if it actually works for them – which many, including farmers in CHB, seriously question – this is the one-dimensional answer of a council whose breadth of thinking and innovative capacity is about as wide as a gnat’s eyelash. Reflect a moment upon the current councillors! But I digress.

Back to the rather distinguished Dr Nabhan. Here are some of his observations:

“One strategy would be to promote the use of locally produced compost to increase the moisture-holding capacity of fields, orchards and vineyards. In addition to locking carbon in the soil, composting buffers crop roots from heat and drought while increasing forage and food-crop yields. By simply increasing organic matter in their fields from 1 percent to 5 percent, farmers can increase water storage in the root zones from 33 pounds per cubic meter to 195 pounds.”

Dr Nabhan argues that cities should be mandated to divert and reserve their green-waste for distribution to nearby farms.

“…we need to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles to using small- and medium-scale rainwater harvesting and gray water (that is, waste water excluding toilet water) on private lands, rather than funneling all runoff to huge, costly and vulnerable reservoirs behind downstream dams.”

Our Regional Council dismisses on-farm storage out of hand, despite the fact that many farmers in CHB prefer that approach.

Farmers should “transition to forms of perennial agriculture — initially focusing on edible tree crops and perennial grass pastures … Perennial crops not only keep 7.5 to 9.4 times more carbon in the soil than annual crops, but their production also reduces the amount of fossil fuels needed to till the soil every year.”

The Department of Agriculture (in charge of the national reserve of crop seeds) “should be charged with evaluating hundreds of thousands of seed collections for drought and heat tolerance, as well as other climatic adaptations — and given the financing to do so. Thousands of heirloom vegetables and heritage grains already in federal and state collections could be rapidly screened and then used by farmers for a fraction of what it costs a biotech firm to develop, patent and market a single “climate-friendly” crop.”

And finally …

“Investing in climate-change adaptation will be far more cost-effective than doling out $11.6 billion in crop insurance payments, as the government did last year, for farmers hit with diminished yields or all-out crop failures … Climate adaptation is the game every food producer and eater must now play. A little investment coming too late will not help us adapt in time to this new reality.”

Yes, in NZ, the scale is different, but the underlying challenges our farmers face are the same.

But instead of taking a holistic approach and helping farmers prepare for systemic change in farming practices to adapt to environmental realities, our ‘one trick pony’ of a Regional Council offers its dam … and damn the consequences.

As Dr Nabhan admonishes in the US context: “It’s now up to our political and business leaders to get their heads out of the hot sand and do something tangible to implement climate change policy and practices before farmers, ranchers and consumers are further affected.”


Tom Belford

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  1. Tom, believe me primary industry in NZ is thinking quite hard about climate change & various approaches to increase resilience. Improving soil organic matter is just one of many strategies that will need to be employed, along with optimising our access to & usage of water. The example you’ve quoted about increasing soil water storage 6-fold by increasing soil organic matter 5-fold is an extreme one. For one thing, 1% soil organic matter is extremely low (most likely just about sand rather than soil as we think of it) and for another thing in real-world NZ farming conditions soils, organic matter levels cannot be permanently altered by anything like this amount.
    Yes we need to pay attention to soil organic matter but no its not a viable alternative to water storage.

  2. Tom, Good to see someone on this wavelength. I’ve been using Basalt Rock Dust for 22 years in my veggie Gardens

    Can I add, I’ve been researching the use of Basalt Rock Dust to re-mineralise the soils, which would also benefit greatly those producing in areas with sparse rainfall, dry summers and no irrigation, together with your composting. A google search has plenty of info on this.

    It’s meant to dramatically help with sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere too.

    You may like to check it out and suggest as an idea to your readers.

  3. The comments on grey water usage and on farm storage are excellent. There are real opportunities there.

    The US example doesn’t translate well to NZ as Xan points out. The organic matter % here is already much higher as we have such deep alluvial soils, formed relatively recently. Most of the farming in the US is on very light, sandy soils with extremely low organic matter levels and poor water holding capacity.

    It’s also worth pointing out that we needn’t push the drought panic button quite yet. 2010, 2011 and 2012 were extremely wet years with the Heretaunga Plains receiving more than 200mm of rain in January in each of those years, compared with an average of around 35mm. The farmers did well, but it was a nightmare if you were a peach grower. The tables turned in 2013.

    My grandfather’s diaries from the 1930’s indicate such anomolies are not outside historical norms. It’s a good reminder that nature will make a fool of us all, any time she pleases.

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