How climate-smart agriculture makes farmers resilient

Wageningen Climate Solutions

Strip cultivation in Lelystad. Photo: ERF BV

BY Hanny Roskamp - September 2019


Farmers are having to cope with increasingly extreme weather conditions, not just lengthy droughts but also heavy rainfall. The Wageningen researcher Pieter de Wolf is studying how farmers can respond better to these changing conditions.

Dry, hot summers, like we had in 2018 and 2019, will be more common in the future, according to the climate scenarios of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. The same is true for extreme downpours in the summer. The risk of damage due to extreme weather therefore looks set to increase, while the weather itself is becoming less predictable. That makes it difficult for farmers to prepare for the summer season.

What is more, farmers may face new insects and pests due to shifting climate zones. Diseases and pests that were until recently confined to southern countries, such as potato virus Y, are increasingly being seen in the Netherlands. But a warmer climate also brings new opportunities. Sweetcorn and grapes for wine are already being grown in the Netherlands and there could be more to come.

Salinization was long seen as a remote issue but the summer of 2018 showed it is already a problem

Crop diversity for productive and resilient production chains. Photo: WUR / Open Teelten Lelystad

CROP PROTECTION IS INCREASINGLY TRICKY

What strategy should farmers adopt to secure their future? That is an important question for Pieter de Wolf, applied researcher and the Sustainable Agriculture project coordinator at Wageningen University & Research. “If you look at diseases and pests, the problem can be solved as long as you still have access to effective crop protection agents. However, more and more agents are being banned because they are harmful to people and the environment. That’s a significant complicating factor.”

At the same time, farmers in the Netherlands’ coastal regions in particular are struggling with salinization of the soil. “We always thought it would take a while before rising sea levels led to salinization, which made it a remote issue. But the summer of 2018 showed it is already a problem in dry periods. With enough rain, the salt gets washed out of the soil again but last year there was a shortage of fresh water, which had a big impact on fruit growers in the province of Zeeland, for instance.”

Research shows that diseases and pests spread less quickly in strip cultivation

The machinery most farmers currently use isn’t suited to strip cultivation and there are still lots of questions about the optimum crop combinations. Photo: WUR / Open Teelten Lelystad

CHANNELS TO THE DITCHES

A warmer climate also brings new opportunities. The Netherlands is already growing grapes for wine

And then there is the excess water from downpours. “If you’re growing potatoes, you need to get rid of the water within 24 hours or else they drown. So farmers dig channels that lead to the ditches so that the water flows away faster. Water boards are often not happy about this as a lot of water pours into the ditches in a short space of time, which can lead to flooding elsewhere. It also often means crop protection agents and fertilizers are washed into the ditches too.”

De Wolf is working in Groningen and South Limburg on measures to improve the infiltration capacity and water retention capacity of agricultural land. “Doing this in South Limburg will let the agricultural sector help prevent flooding in low-lying villages. And it is a bonus in dry periods if the soil retains more water. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution; each situation is different.”

Aerial view of strip cultivation. Photo: ERF BV

STRIP CULTIVATION REDUCES THE SPREAD OF PESTS

A concept that is making waves around the world thanks to Wageningen is climate-smart agriculture. This is a form of agriculture in which more food is grown while reducing negative emissions and at the same time coping with the effects of climate change.

One example is strip cultivation: alternating strips of different crops are grown, which reduces the chance of diseases spreading and consequently allows a reduction in the use of pesticides. De Wolf: “Research shows that diseases and pests spread less quickly in strip cultivation.”

“That is an interesting result given the pressure on chemical crop protection methods. This system also reduces the risk of erosion in plots on a slope. But we haven’t yet got to the stage where Dutch farmers are switching to strip cultivation en masse. The machinery they currently use isn’t suited to it and there are still lots of questions about the optimum crop combinations.”

The use of strip cultivation increases biodiversity in agriculture and prevents the spread of plant diseases.

FINANCIAL RESILIENCE OF FIELD CROPS

In the project ‘Field Crops and Climate Adaption in relation to Financial Resilience’, researchers at Wageningen University & Research and Wageningen Plant Research were commissioned by a group including the ministries of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure & the Environment to examine the financial resilience of farms that grow crops in open fields (rather than greenhouses) and are consequently most affected by climate change.

In the study, they looked at potatoes, maize, leeks, grass, pears, lilies, beech trees and lime trees. A key conclusion is that you can deal with climate change by taking adaptive measures, such as irrigation systems and nets for protection from hailstorms, but they are often expensive and only make sense if the return on investment is sufficient.

Other measures are more feasible in financial terms but they are incapable of solving the problem completely. De Wolf gives the example of a farmer who stopped ploughing his land. That let the soil absorb and retain more water. “His crops lasted longer during the 2018 drought. But when the drought persisted, even they succumbed in the end.”

Corn field after a drought. Photo: Shutterstock

SOLUTION INVOLVES FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT AND SPREADING RISKS

Financial management and risk spreading therefore need to be part of the solution. For example, you could grow crops on plots that are further apart. It is not just a problem for farmers either. De Wolf cites the example of a tinned food manufacturer that gets its vegetables from local growers. “When that area flooded after persistent rains, they could not achieve their production targets. A company like that could spread its purchasing risks by buying from growers in France, Belgium or Germany. There is much less of a risk of things going wrong simultaneously in all those countries.”

“We see that specialization and centralization make firms more vulnerable. The whole supply chain needs to spread and manage the risks. In the financial chain too, if a farmer is hit by extreme weather, he may not be able to meet his financial obligations or he may need cash to keep his business running. So it is also in the interests of banks and insurance companies for farmers to get better at managing the risks.”

De Wolf adds we should not forget that low yields are not necessarily a bad thing financially. “Analyses show that dry years often have a positive effect on farmers’ incomes because they get a better price while costs are usually lower. The possible measures are sometimes more expensive than the potential losses. Then it can be a good idea to accept your losses and adopt a wait-and-see attitude.”

For more information about how experts at WUR are working on a approach to future-resistant and regenerative agricultural systems and nature-inclusive agriculture, please visit our website.

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