Recent weather changes are threatening Ohio’s farmers, but a switch to organic practices could be part of the solution. All that’s needed now, is for the government to support the transition.
According to the Ohio Livestock Coalition, “Agriculture is the number-one contributor to Ohio’s economy,” with almost 75,000 farms in the state, and one out of eight jobs in Ohio related to farming. Most of the state has warmed by about one degree (F) in the last century due to the larger effects of global warming, as reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2016. This change in climate has had various positive effects, but overall, farmers are suffering.
The EPA report admits that, “longer frost-free growing seasons and higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide would increase yields for some crops during an average year.” But at the same time, “increasingly hot summers are likely to reduce yields of corn and possibly soybeans… More severe droughts or floods would also hurt crop yields.”
Amalie Lipstreu, policy director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association (OEFFA) who previously ran former Governor Ted Strictland’s Ohio Food Policy Council and Office of Sustainable Agriculture, admits that many farmers are feeling the effects. In some cases, farmers are having to grow shorter season crops, like corn.
“Many Ohio counties received disaster designation because of the flooding. Farmers couldn’t get in their fields to plant when they were supposed to be planting. So, they had to change up their seed orders, and go to shorter season corn,” said Lipstreu.
But, there is one method of farming that actually helps fight the effects of climate change, and that’s organic. Organic farming means that the food is produced without the employment of chemically created fertilizers, growth stimulants, pesticides, or antibiotics.
“There is a lot of research showing that good soil management practices, good holistic practices, better buffer farm owners from these extreme weather events,” said Lipstreu. These practices can actually help aid in the “reduction of harmful greenhouse gases, sequestering carbon in the soil and really being part of the solution.”
For nearly 40 years, the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania has been running farming systems trials that pits conventional farming methods against organic ones. They’ve found that organic systems produce yields up to 40% higher than conventional ones in times of drought. Organic practices also earn three to six times greater profits for farmers, use 45% less energy, and release 40% fewer carbon emissions. On top of all that, after only a five-year transition period, organic systems are completely competitive with conventional yields.
“[Organic practices] provide the kind of resilience that farmers are going to need in the days, months and years ahead as we continue to deal with these weather challenges,” said Lipstreu.
Sasha Miller of Purplebrown Farmstead is deeply rooted in these practices. She and her family have been cultivating their organic farm in Boston Heights, Ohio, for around five years. They raise pork, mushrooms, eggs, fruit, vegetables, herbs, flowers and more.
Miller said that in the conventional monoculture style of farming, “one cold snap and you’ve lost your crop.” Lipstreu and Miller agree that when it comes to agriculture, crop diversity and soil health practices are the best insurance policies. That’s why Purplebrown Farmstead seeks to follow the path of nature by being agriculturally productive instead of destructive.
“Topsoil is invaluable; never take anything away, always add it on,” said Miller. She uses compost and woodchips to protect her plants and soil. She also plants all her produce together in “self-organized abundance,” meaning that the taller plants (like fruit trees) provide shade for the lower, ground-covering plants below.
In this way, Miller is helping the climate, feeding her community and making a living all at once. Purplebrown Farmstead hosts an open farm store on Saturdays from 9-5, partnering with other local regenerative farmers to offer a wide variety of produce and organic goodies for the community.
In 2019, the OEFFA did an analysis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service five-year survey of agriculture, highlighting Ohio. From this, Lipstreu gleaned that, “Ohio is second only to California in the amount of conventional farmland transitioning to organic management systems.” Additionally, “in the past six years, Ohio’s gone from eighth in the nation to six in the nation in the number of organic farms.”
“The fact that we’re second in the country in transitioning to organic is amazing. What’s unfortunate, is that there’s very little extension support in our land grant system for organic farmers,” Lipstreu said. She has been trying to work with Ohio legislators to address the issue of how to support and encourage farmers as they transition to organic.
“Our Department of Agriculture barely acknowledges that organic agriculture exists in Ohio,” Lipstreu said. “Given that this is a voluntary, holistic system of agriculture that farmers are increasingly interested in, why wouldn’t you want to support it?”
“Sometimes talking about these issues feels really depressing. There’s a lot of challenges… But, the good news is, we have a lot of the answers,” Lipstreau said. “We just need to muster the political will to support these people who want to do the right things. We can do that at the state level and we can do that at the federal level. And what I would hope that you can convey to your readers is that we need them to engage and to put pressure on our decision makers to support the people who are doing the right things.”