URI joins Northeast Climate Hub to help farmers adapt to climate change

KINGSTON, R.I. – December 17, 2014 – Most of the efforts in Rhode Island to address climate change have focused on how coastal communities can prepare for rising sea levels and eroding beaches. Now a new initiative linking 12 northeastern states will help farmers and forest owners adapt to the changing climate, too. And the University of Rhode Island has a lead role.

The Northeast Climate Hub is one of seven hubs around the country funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address increasing climate-related risks to agriculture. Partner universities in each state are interviewing local farmers to learn about the issues they are facing and planning pilot projects designed to solve particular problems.

According to Bill Buffum, a URI research scientist who is managing the project in Rhode Island with Associate Dean Deborah Sheely and Professor Art Gold, the climate-related issues farmers are facing include changes to planting cycles, new pests moving into the area, and more extreme weather events.

“Increasingly severe storms are going to cause all sorts of problems for agriculture,” Buffum said. “And rain patterns are expected to shift, so rainfall in winter will go up but we’ll have more drought in the summer. That’s going to have a big impact on farmers, too.”

Although the project is still in its early stages, Buffum and colleague Kat Zuromski have already begun meeting with farmers and conducting vulnerability assessments. One of the first pilot projects they plan to launch will address the increased storm run-off from farms that will likely affect local streams.

“With the heavy rainfalls that are coming, nitrogen and phosphorous will work its way into our drinking water systems,” he said. “We’re looking at ways to plant more vegetation along stream banks that could absorb some of those nutrients. And hopefully the plantings could be something the farmers could earn some money from.”

By the end of next year, Buffum hopes to have several landowners trying out different approaches to protecting stream banks. Universities in other states will be testing other ways of adapting to climate change, and the success stories will be shared with all involved. In Connecticut, for example, the first project is experimenting with different methods of tilling the soil so it doesn’t dry out so fast.

“The point of the hub is to have regular sharing and cross-fertilization so we all can benefit from whatever is learned in each state,” Buffum said.

Details about the Northeast Climate Hub and the projects being undertaken will be included in a new website. Additional information about climate change in Rhode Island can be found at a URI website launched a year ago.

Photo courtesy of NOAA