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Manage Agricultural Lands for Climate Change

Agriculture is a $200 billion a year industry in the United States, and many land trusts hold easements on land that is used for either crop or livestock production. Land trusts may wish to work closely with land owners to manage easements so that conservation and production goals are met, despite climate change.

Climate Change Impacts: Current and Predicted

Shifting climatic conditions will likely result in changes in growth rate, the timing of life cycle events, health, stress, and the overall productivity of both crop- and livestock-based agriculture. Although climate change is expected to give some crops in some regions a short-term boost in productivity, the long-term impacts are predicted to be mostly negative. Observed and predicted climate change impacts to agricultural land include:

  • Increased production in some crops, as a response to elevated levels of carbon dioxide and low levels of warming. Note: This is expected to be a short-term positive impact, because higher levels of warming negatively impact the growth and yield of most crops.
  • Reduced crop production, overall, as temperatures rise beyond optimum for most crops, and interact with other climate change impacts.
  • Greater risk of crop loss, due to extreme weather events, including severe storms and droughts.
  • Increased weed competition, which generally respond more dramatically than cultivated crops to rising temperatures and elevated levels of carbon dioxide.
  • Greater risk of disease and insect pests, including a northward expansion of current pest ranges.
  • Reduced forage quality in pastures and rangelands, because elevated levels of carbon dioxide reduce plants’ ability to take up nitrogen or produce protein.
  • Diminished livestock productivity, due to stress from heat, disease and extreme weather events. For a full summary of predicted climate change impacts to agricultural land, crops and livestock, review the chapter on agriculture in the 2009 report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.

Recommendations for Adaptation

Many land trusts hold easements on agricultural land, and are expected to play an advisory or management role as landowners seek to adapt their agricultural practices to a changing climate. Land trusts that hold easements to agricultural land may wish to:

Specific recommendations for the adaptation of agricultural lands to climate change include:

  • Reduce the economic impact of climate change by encouraging growers to diversify the types and varieties of crops and/or livestock.
  • Conserve soil moisture by planting cover crops.
  • Install or enhance water management systems, such as irrigation.
  • Develop and implement adaptive management practices, which will allow landowners to observe, identify and respond to changing conditions.

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