by Brian Kahn, NOAA Climate Program Office, International Research Institute for Climate and
Alabama grower Myron Johnson talking with Wendy-Lin Bartels, an anthropologist with the Southeast Climate Consortium.
Driving through southern Alabama and Florida, you notice that almost every unpaved surface is green. Despite the lushness, farming in the Southeast is a bit of a gamble.
From far away, periodic warming and cooling in the tropical Pacific Ocean - El Niño and La Niña cycles - can drastically alter seasonal rainfall in the Southeast. La Niña often brings crippling droughts that can swallow a farmer’s fortunes. It’s against this backdrop that farmers in the region have to make a living, and they’re looking for an edge anywhere they can find it.
The Southeast Climate Consortium (SECC) - one of eleven Regional Integrated Science and Assessment programs funded by the NOAA Climate Program Office - is trying to help farmers keep one step ahead of the weather. The SECC has been bringing together farmers, extension agents (experts and educators in the field), and climate and agriculture researchers from Alabama, Georgia, and Florida since April 2010.
Kirk Brock examines a root pit in his field.
He digs a root pit each spring to see root development and how crops interact with the soil. Brock also takes soil samples from the pit to see what microbes and nutrients are in the soil. Credit: NOAA
At a typical meeting, Florida State Climatologist David Zierden presents the forecast for the coming season to the farmers and extension agents and what it might mean for planting and other farming decisions. He also takes the time to assess the previous seasonal forecast he shared with them so they can discuss what did or didn’t happen.
While Zierden encourages farmers to pay attention to the forecasts, he acknowledges that they have limitations. "We try to train farmers that these forecasts are probabilistic. It's a shift [in the odds] they need to be aware of," Zierden explained, rather than a guarantee that conditions will be warm or cold, wet or dry.
Heading into last winter, Zierden said, the seasonal forecast told farmers to expect a winter that was dryer and warmer than normal due to a strong La Niña that had developed over the summer. Ultimately, the dry part of the forecast was borne out. However, the warm part wasn't.
Myron Johnson’s tractor runs on GPS-guided auto-pilot, allowing him to keep an eye on what’s going on in the field behind him.
What threw off the temperature forecast was another climate phenomenon that is less predictable than La Niña but no less important to the Southeast’s climate. The pattern, known as the North Atlantic Oscillation, was in a negative phase through most of the winter and spring of 2011. In addition to affecting the Southeast, it also contributed to unusually cold and snowy conditions across the entire eastern U.S.
A recent story in NOAA's ClimateWatch Magazine followed Wendy-Lin Bartels, an anthropologist with the SECC, and two farmers as they discussed how last year's forecast influenced the decisions they made about their crops.
Winter 2011 temperature Outlook
The winter 2011 temperature outlook favored well above normal temperatures in the Southeast, a frequent outcome for the region during La Niña events. Colored shading shows areas where temperature were predicted to be well above or well below normal. Contour lines show the level of probability. (Outside of the shaded areas, the forecast called for equal chances of above normal, normal, or below normal conditions.) Credit: NOAA
Myron Johnson, a row crop farmer from Alabama, had great success using last summer’s seasonal forecast to help make planting decisions on his 2,000-acre farm. But on Kirk Brock's northern Florida farm, it was a different story. While he hadn't "lost the farm" the decisions he had made based on the seasonal forecast hadn't worked out as well as he hoped.
Despite his experience, Brock still believes the forecast is absolutely an asset even if it's not always right."As a dryland farmer, you've got to do what you can to stay in business because there's going to be those tough times," Brock said. "What I learn over the next two to three years [about seasonal forecasts], long-term it's going to make me money.
Bartels believes maintaining relationships with farmers in the region is critical to avoiding losses in the future and ultimately turn bigger profits. "The magic is not in the climate information," she said. "It's in how the farmer connects this knowledge with what he already knows."