As NRDC launches a new, web-based extreme-weather mapping tool, I’ve been reflecting on how this year’s abnormal weather patterns have affected farmers and our food supply. Stories of droughts turning rich, moist soil into a powdery dust and hurricanes submerging farmland were more common this year. The crop damage resulting from these types of climate-related disasters can be crippling for farmers, and the loss of food adds insult to injury when you consider the outrageous amount of food that is already wasted in this country.
Hurricane Irene, for instance, arrived in the Northeast at the height of the growing season at the end of August and hit farmers hard. “I’ve been involved in agriculture my entire life, and there have been times when the weather has wreaked havoc on livestock and farms,” says New York State’s agriculture commissioner Darrel J. Aubertine. “But I don’t think I have ever seen anything on this scale here in New York.” In Middleburgh, New York, the Lloyd family’s dairy farm was devastated. “It wiped out our farm, our business, it wiped out our home,” Denise Lloyd says. The family lost not only buildings and fields of feed that would have taken their cows through the winter, but 47 animals, too. Most of them were calves that were washed away as the flood waters rose to seven feet in a short matter of minutes.
Many of the Northeast region’s dairy farmers, whose farms weren’t flooded, ended up losing their milk anyway. They dumped it because washed-out roads prevented milk tankers from bringing their dairy for processing. Elsewhere, whole farms were so gravely submerged under water that farmers traversed their fields in canoes; many lost almost all of their crops. “Because of the timing of the hurricane,” says Cheryl Huber, assistant director of New York City’s GreenMarkets, a network of farmers markets, “it was too late to replant anything. And root crops rotted underground.”
Lubbock, Texas got only 10% of the rain it normally receives. The drought caused the cotton harvest to be down by two-thirds, and virtually all non-irrigated cotton was given up for lost. Even irrigated crops failed. Ranchers suffered too and had to sell of their cattle because there was no grass or water to feed them. The impact of the drought on Texas’ agricultural economy was severe, with losses topping $5.2 billion.
The stories go on. Adapting to climate change will be a continuing challenge for farmers in the coming years.
What does this mean for you and me? Well for one, let’s value our food. Next time we sit down to eat, let’s think about just how much time, energy, and how many resources went into getting that meal to our plate. Really. And let’s be conscious of the 40% of edible food we’re wasting without climate disasters to blame for it. Learn when food goes bad, eat leftovers, plan your meals, and donate what you won’t use.
And be sure to thank a farmer while you’re at it.