NYS Farmers and Drought: Q&A with Shannan Sweet
Category: The Big Picture

NYS Farmers and Drought: Q&A with Shannan Sweet

From The Nature Conservancy:

Our World faces unprecedented challenges with climate change — challenges that NatureNet Science Fellows are helping to solve by pushing conservation science into entirely new areas.

The NatureNet Science Fellows program is a partnership between The Nature Conservancy and premier universities that’s designed to amplify the Conservancy’s work by investing in the research of early-career scientists. Each year, fellows hosted by Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future provide our chapter with a unique opportunity to connect their expertise with our local projects.

Shannan Sweet, a 2017 NatureNet Science Fellow, is working to help farmers adapt to climate change right here in New York. To understand the impacts of the 2016 record-breaking drought on farmers and their ability to cope with drought risk, Sweet, along with NatureNet mentor and Cornell University professor David Wolfe, surveyed over 200 farmers. Results show that over half the farmers in southern and western New York lost greater than 30 percent of their rain-fed crops, with some reporting over 90 percent crop failure. 39 percent of farmers surveyed have subsequently found alternate water sources or purchased irrigation equipment.

Q. Last year, it was too little rain. This year, it seems that there is too much rain. What does the extreme weather mean for farmers?

One benefit of this year’s heavy rain is the replenishment of the wells, ponds and streams that farmers rely on for irrigation and farm-related water uses. This does not spare them from the risk of a short-term, late summer drought. On the flipside, many farmers cannot get out and plant seeds at this crucial time because they are unable to maneuver equipment through sopping wet fields. Variability in precipitation will likely increase, which means flooding and drought will continue to challenge New York farmers.

Q. You have said that it is a tricky time to be a farmer in New York, but also an exciting time. How so?

Climate change could bring opportunities to grow longer season crops and different varieties of perennial fruit crops like apples and grapes. But frost damage due to increased late winter thaws and early spring freezes is also a possibility.

Q. Having grown up in a family of farmers suggests that your work matters to you on a personal level. Tell me more.

I grew up in the Finger Lakes and my family still runs a greenhouse near Seneca Lake. My mother was one of the founders of the Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association in the 1980s. I’ve been interested in protecting the waters here from a very young age.
Being a part of these local communities for most of my life, I am also interested in helping farmers. Essentially, I want to help protect both agricultural and water resources in New York State, And the two are not, and cannot be, mutually exclusive. Both are important economically, culturally and environmentally. My goal is to help New York farmers adapt to andlessen the impacts of climate change in a way that also serves to protect water quantity and quality across the state.

Q. What excites you about your work?

The fact that we are helping farmers to think more deeply about climate change and its impacts excites me. It’s rewarding to see them proactively think about what they can do to deal with its effects and even mitigate them. Most farmers are recognizing that they can no longer rely on historical weather patterns for their region to tell them when to plant, what to plant, and how to grow it.

Q. When you started your fellowship, you were talking mainly to farmers, but you are now speaking to elected officials. Has that surprised you?

I never pictured myself talking to senators and Congressional leaders about farmers’ perceptions, but it is heartening to know that these conversations have the potential to bring resources that might help farmers deal with future climate-related issues,
The Conservancy’s NatureNet Science Fellows Program is made possible by the leadership and generosity of visionary donors, including Roy Wagelos and Steve Denning, who believe that Conservation needs to base its work not just in ecology and biology, but in an interdisciplinary approach to science and evidence.

This article first appeared in a publication of The Nature Conservancy


Photo by Martin LaBar (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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