Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Climate Change and Farming: This Shepherd's Evolving Perspective

Every time I read the paper or turn on National Public Radio, I seem to find another story describing the the accelerating pace of global climate change.  This week, I've read articles about the rapid shrinking of glaciers in Antartica (and the potential for fairly rapid sea level rise), and on the need for California agriculture to adapt growing practices to changing conditions.  At times I find this deluge of news discouraging and overwhelming.  I often worry about the climate my daughters (and their children) will live in. This blog entry is my attempt to make sense of what's happening - and to perhaps generate some discussion about what we might do (individually and collectively) about climate change.  And since my own thoughts on the topic are evolving, I apologize up front for the disjointed nature of this essay.

First, I firmly believe that human activity is at least a contributing factor to climate change.  The additional carbon dioxide we've pumped into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution has to have had an impact on our planet. I realize there is debate about this cause-and-effect relationship, but this personal recognition drives many of my personal responses (below).

Second - and this is purely anecdotal and over a short period of time - I have noticed climatic changes in my own little corner of the Sierra Nevada foothills (where I've lived for most of my 47 years).  I have no data to back any of this up, but it seems to me that we got a great deal more snow at the 2700 foot elevation where I grew up than my parents get today (at the same house).  I also recall camping in the High Sierra as a child and getting summer thunderstorms every year - summer rain just doesn't seem as common as it did when I was a kid.  We seem to have more extreme weather than we had when I was younger - more storms that drop 3+ inches of rain, more intense heat waves, etc.  I can't document any of this, and my memory could very well be faulty - but things seem to be changing.

To recap - I believe that our climate is changing, and that human activity is at least partially responsible for this change.  So what can a solitary shepherd in the Sierra foothills do about it?  Anything?

I think most of us (at least in North America) are waiting for some enormous technological advance that will reverse the effects of burning fossil fuels.  In other words, we're waiting for someone or some organization to make THE difference with respect to climate change.  This is certainly much easier in the short term than taking any personal responsibility.  And while our cultural experience in North America suggests that someone or something will eventually come up with a revolutionary solution, we all have a personal responsibility to make A difference when it comes to these issues.  What does this mean for me?

First, resilience and flexibility are critical, especially when it comes to food production.  Our current drought has highlighted these for me - we've tried to remain flexible enough to stay in business in the third and driest year since 2012.  We've sold sheep, we've changed our marketing strategies, and we've developed new opportunities to graze rangelands that had not been managed with livestock for many years.  We'll see if this flexibility allows us to be more resilient - I anticipate that we'll still be in the sheep business when this drought is over (whenever that may be).

Second, livestock production is often cited as a significant contributor to global warming.  From the science I've seen on the topic, I think this is debatable - it seems to be used as justification for a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.  Stop eating meat, the thinking goes, and save the planet.  Granted, I'm a shepherd, so my perspective may be skewed, but here it is:
The "sheepherder" definition of rangeland is any land that is too hot, too cold, too steep, too dry - too "something" - to support cultivation.  While ruminant animals do produce methane, they also convert forage (grass, weeds, brush, etc.) into food and fiber - milk, meat and wool, in the case of sheep.  With a growing global world population, I guess I feel like responsible and sustainable rangeland livestock production is critical to feeding and clothing ourselves.
Third, my own habits contribute to the problem - driving, especially.  Trying to eat, work and recreate as locally as possible will help reduce my own contribution.  Walking my sheep between pastures whenever possible (rather than hauling them) will help, too.  I realize that these are not even a microscopic drop in the bucket given the magnitude of the problem, but they are steps I can take - today!

Finally, I can talk about these issues with my daughters.  I can help them gain the skills necessary to survive in a changing climate - skills like critical thinking, resilience, and the ability to grow at least some of their own food.  Who knows, maybe their generation will come up with THE solution - in the meantime, these little steps will probably be important, too.

I know I'll continue to ruminate on this topic....

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