I have lived and farmed in Chatham County for 36 years and come from a continuous line of farming families. With that background, I’ve always known that a farmer’s livelihood is susceptible to the weather, that’s nothing new. What is new, over the last few years, is a collection of rapidly-increasing changes on my farm that I believe are attributable to changes in the climate.
Increased incidence of heavy rainfall is perhaps the most significant factor impacting my farm. The NOAA data shows a pattern of increasingly frequent and more intense storms impacting the Southeastern United States. These hurricanes and strong storms aren’t just a coastal problem. They cause flooding far inland, and I’ve seen it first hand at my Chatham County farm. The increased storms and flooding have resulted in erosion and the creation of gulleys in the last few years, even in properly grazed permanent pastures. During the first 30 or so years on my farm, I documented only one occurrence of five inches or more of rainfall happening in roughly a 24-hour timeframe, and that was during Hurricane Fran. In just the past three years, I’ve documented six such occurrences. This is a tangible, noticeable change.
This past year there was so much rainfall that the ground was saturated from September to May. I’ve never seen this kind of prolonged ground saturation in this part of North Carolina before. Even with an operation as resilient and flexible as pasture-based beef cattle, this presents substantial and expensive management challenges. Grazing wet pastures can ruin the crop and confining cattle in muddy conditions can result in disease and injury. If the heavy rainfall continues and prolonged ground saturation becomes a recurrent issue, it is simply not possible to have a profitable business.
In addition to the rainfall, we’re experiencing record high temperatures. According to data from NOAA over the last 140 years, June 2019 was the hottest on record globally. This pattern of heat appears to be extending for longer time periods each year. The warmer summer temperatures have a number of consequences that I have to mitigate on my farm, including negative impacts on animal health and reproduction.
One of the effects that appears to be correlated with the increasing heat and moisture is the dramatic increase of the tick population. The prevalence of ticks impacts my ability to work on the farm. Knowing the potential risks of tick-borne diseases,I try to minimize time working in tall grass or brush between March and November. Ticks can also transmit diseases to the cattle.
When the ambient temperature rises, so does the temperature of the soil. One of the consequences of high soil temperatures is that our area has become a more hospitable environment for certain organisms, such as fire ants. As the soil temperature rises, the fire ant population moves farther north. Fire ants sting and injure people and animals, and can also indirectly damage feedstock and equipment.
Any one of the above changes may have multiple causes. The cumulative impact of these changes on my farm, however, is negative and increasing. Furthermore, the unpredictability of these changing weather patterns can be as problematic as the weather itself.
With ever changing conditions, it’s increasingly difficult to plan and prepare. Given these changes it’s very difficult not to conclude there’s a link with the changing climate. I believe it’s a real factor with very real consequences for our region.