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Researcher: Farmers will warm to climate challenge

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Washington State University researcher Chad Kruger says he’s optimistic farmers will adapt to a warmer climate

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Climate change may sprout weeds, breed insects and shrink snowpacks, but it won’t be anything farmers can’t handle, a Washington State University researcher said Friday at an agriculture conference.

Chad Kruger, who directs WSU’s Mount Vernon and Puyallup research centers, said he’s bullish on Washington’s agricultural future, even if temperatures increase noticeably by mid-century. Farmers are used to operating in an unsteady climate, he said.

“We already deal with a substantial amount of variability,” Kruger said. “Our best hope for the future is really smart, well-equipped farmers.”

Kruger spoke at the annual conference organized by the Tilth Alliance, a group focused on small farms, especially those that are organic. He was one of several speakers at a symposium on Northwest agriculture and climate change.

The speaker before him, University of Washington climate scientist Heidi Roop, outlined scenarios in which average Washington temperatures rise between 2 and 8 degrees by mid-century. She encouraged growers to think of the drought of 2015 as look at the future.

“I think the big question is, Are we prepared for this not very far future?” she said.

Kruger said he’s skeptical about scientists’ ability to pinpoint future temperatures, but he said he finds the projected ranges reasonable. Whatever the range, the future will resemble the present in that farmers will have to plan for wet and dry years, cold spells and heat waves, he said.

Researchers are starting to look deeply into how higher temperatures would affect plants, water and soil, Kruger said.

“We’re shifting into more of a discussion about the range of future possibilities and making decisions that are robust across those possibilities,” he said. “We have to get better information into the hands of the farmers who have decisions to make.”

Northwest farmers are better positioned geographically to adjust than their counterparts in southern climates, Kruger said. Even if temperatures rise, snow will fall in Canada and melt into the Columbia River, and the Northwest won’t be as prone to long droughts as the Southwest, he said.

“It’s a lot worse elsewhere,” Kruger said. “The closer you are to the equator, the more vulnerable you are.”

The new National Climate Assessment, a quadrennial product of government and university scientists, confidently predicts rising temperatures, though the message on precipitation is less clear.

The current thinking is that in the Northwest more precipitation will fall as rain, rather than snow. The 2015 drought was chiefly characterized by small snowpacks, not low precipitation. Kruger said he believes much of the consequences of smaller snowpacks can be blunted if irrigators are allowed to adjust in water-short years.

“I’m very optimistic,” Kruger said. “Farmers are smart. That’s the bottom line.”

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