Sunday, July 24, 2016

Adaptation and Resilience

I'm taking a course as part of my master's degree program at Colorado State University called "Managing for Ecosystem Sustainability."  I've enjoyed the course, which has covered topics like the carbon and nitrogen cycles and soils management.  The reading materials and lectures have also focused on resiliency and adaptation to climate change - topics that are especially relevant to me, given my recent experience with drought.

I've long thought that any successful response to climate change will require an accumulation of small, individual decisions to change our behaviors as a species.  Government mandates and technological advances aside, climate change will only be addressed successfully by individuals, in my opinion.  The "big" solution doesn't seem likely.  In the past, my thinking has focused on behavior changes that will reduce, or at least slow, the affects of climate change (increasing carbon dioxide concentrations and temperatures and rising sea levels, just to name the ones that come to mind immediately).  This class, on the other hand, has made me consider the things that I can do personally to adapt to these changes (which, increasingly, seem inevitable to me).

In some respects, the long history of agriculture has been one of adaptation.  Farmers and ranchers have figured out what grows well in their specific location.  In California, at least, crops are grown (for the most part) where the climate and environment support their profitable cultivation.  Rice is grown on heavy soils in the Sacramento Valley, for example.  Small grains (wheat, barley, rye, etc.) are grown in the Montezuma Hills in the Delta where irrigation water is scarce.  Avocados and citrus are grown in climates (and micro-climates) where freezing temperatures are unlikely.

Ranchers make similar choices.  In his essay, "Let the Farm Judge," Wendell Berry writes about the powers of observation and adaptation that led British (and Scottish, Welsh and Irish) shepherds to develop 80 distinct breeds and cross-breeds of sheep on a group of islands the size of Kentucky.  As Berry suggests, while the market (consumer demand) often places specific product demands on livestock producers, the land and its climate deserve at least equal weight in a producer's decisions about livestock breeds.

 Admittedly, sometimes technology gets it wrong.  I'm not convinced - the economic incentives aside - that we should be growing almond trees on rangeland in California (for a variety of reasons).  As the grain farmers who broke the sod of the high plains in the 1920s learned, rain doesn't follow the plow.  I guess this brings me back to the importance of individual acts over large-scale technological innovation.

Our ranching operation entails turning grass (grown on rangeland that won't - or shouldn't - produce cultivated crops) into flesh and fiber and milk.  Using ruminant animals (sheep, in our case), we turn this grass into products that humans can use.  We've focused on sheep because we feel that they fit our environment (small pieces of unfenced grassland) better than cattle (and frankly, because sheep fit my skill-set better than cattle).  We've focused on a cross-breeding system that results in sheep that thrive on a combination of annual grasses, weeds, brush, and irrigated pasture.  And we've selected individual sheep in our breeding program that perform especially well in our oak woodland environment.

Rising temperatures and increasing carbon dioxide concentrations will undoubtedly impact our rangelands and our irrigated pastures.  I expect that we'll see more invasive weeds (both grasses and broadleaf plants).  We'll see warm-season grasses (which thrive with more carbon dioxide and warmer temperatures) displace the cool-season grasses in our irrigated pastures.  Because sheep generally have a more widely varied diet than cattle - and because our sheep specifically have been exposed to a wide range of forage plants - I think we're well positioned to adapt to the changing climate.

Some "experts" believe that animal agriculture should be abandoned in the face of climate change - after all, ruminant animals emit methane (a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide).  I disagree for a variety of reasons.  First, grazing animals allow humans to produce nutritionally dense food (meat and milk) and renewable fiber on land that won't grow a crop.  For example, our ewes spend approximately two thirds of the year grazing on land that is too dry, too steep or too poor to grow a food crop - but this land grows outstanding forage (which our sheep convert to meat and wool).  Second, by focusing on the type of animal that fits our environment - and managing our rangeland to favor the plants that they prefer - we can increase the digestive efficiency of our sheep (and reduce methane emissions).

I'll admit that I'm worried about the world we seem to be leaving our children and grandchildren.  As I write this piece, we're in the midst of our second significant heat wave of the summer in Northern California.  While I'm not suggesting that this (or any particular) heat wave is a result of global climate change, I do worry about the ramifications of even a small increase in average temperatures.  That said, I'm encouraged by the proven ability of farmers and ranchers to adapt to their environments.  Taking steps to reduce the drivers of climate change is important; continuing to adapt to an ever-changing environment is even more critical.

1 comment:

  1. Too deep for me but happy there are people who study and learn!