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Extreme weather is a major challenge for many farmers who are finding it difficult to adapt to climate change , warns a study. Farmers dogged by impact of extreme weather – report

Flooded lettuce after 50mm of rainfall in one day – image taken 6 July 2012 Holbeach Marsh South Lincolnshire

Extreme weather is a major challenge for many farmers who are finding it difficult to adapt to climate change , warns a study.

All farmers who took part in the research said they had experienced or witnessed serious issues caused by extreme weather  – such as heavy rain or prolonged dry spells in recent years – and expect these to intensify further.

Many were concerned about the impact of heat and drought on crop and grass growth, the knock-on impacts for yield and winter animal feed, and the implications of heavy rainfall or flooding for soil run-off and erosion.

Some farmers, however, are doing little to make their businesses more resilient. They said changes to the weather and the UK climate were too uncertain and too long-term for them to invest significant time or money in planning for them now.

Business survival

Instead, the study shows many farmers are focused on short-term profitability and business survival in a challenging economic environment. They are also more concerned about other political and public pressures.

Although farmers increasingly accept that  the climate is changing and they should take action in response, the study says uncertainty about the scale, speed and nature of change locally, make it difficult for many producers to do so.

The research was carried out by Rebecca Wheeler and Matt Lobley from Exeter University’s Centre for Rural Policy Research, in partnership the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Rothamsted Research and Lancaster University.

Researchers carried out 31 in-depth interviews, 15 with farmers and 16 with stakeholders including advisors, consultants and industry representatives. Their findings were published in the journal Climate Risk Management.

A number of agricultural stakeholders said they were concerned too few farm businesses were taking sufficient action to increase their business resilience to extreme weather and climate change.

Some farmers said they simply “hadn’t got around” to implementing measures they would like to undertake, while others were “concentrating on the short term”.

Dr Wheeler said: “Farmers have an array of challenges and uncertainties to cope with, and it is understandable they are focused on the short-term profitability and survival of their business.

“This seems to be preventing them from adapting to the effects of the climate emergency. It is essential the industry finds ways to build resilience, and that farm businesses are supported in planning and responding to changing weather patterns.”

Innovative approach

More positively, the research highlighted the capacity for innovation and adaptability within the farming industry. Many farmers are building resilience within their business through actions to improve soil health to cope with weather extremes.

Some of the opportunities posed by climate change – such as warmer temperatures enabling the production of new crops and increased yields – could benefit farmers so long as they are able to “weather” the challenges posed by negative effects.

As well as improving soil health, positive actions taken to future-proof farm business included the continuous evaluation of crop and grass varieties and production techniques.

Some farmers had installed additional livestock housing with good ventilation, increased rainwater storage capacity, and spread exposure to risk by expanding the diversity of their crops and enterprises.

Prof Lobley said: “There are many innovative and exciting activities happening on farms across the country, but much is still to be done to improve the resilience of individual farms and the industry as a whole.”