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Cold snap highlights risks to agriculture of extreme weather

Cornell providing farmers with tools to manage risk

New technology developed at Cornell CALS is giving farmers new capabilities to respond to climate risks. 

Winter has started with the heart of a lion, marked by an extended period of frigid temperatures and a recent storm that produced dangerously low wind chills, high winds and blizzard conditions.

The blast of Arctic air elevates the risk of damage to certain crops, even if those crops are planted in areas where they are already adapted to the local climate. At the same time, recent fluctuations in temperatures highlight the ever-growing importance of precise data for better decision-support on the farm.

If farmers have more accurate advance notice of the risk of freeze relevant to their particular crop’s hardiness, they can take preventative actions to prevent losses. New technology in the age of big data is providing these new capabilities.

The Cornell Climate Smart Farming Program has developed a website and suite of climate-based agricultural decision support tools aimed at helping farmers make more informed decisions in the face of increasing climate change and uncertainty.

Specific tools were developed based on the major climate impacts to northeastern U.S. agriculture, through a collaborative development process with stakeholders, researchers, and faculty from the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University.

These free tools provide data covering conditions affecting farms in the northeastern United States. Farmers enter their exact farm location into the map interface, along with crop specific information. The models then will provide relevant information to improve decision-making.

Two tools were specifically developed to help farmers manage the risk of freeze damage to crops, especially after warmer periods of weather: the CSF Apple Freeze Damage Probability tool, and the Grape Hardiness and Freeze Risk tool.

The apple freeze tool, for example, allows producers to chart overserved and forecasted daily minimum temperatures as compared to apple hardiness thresholds to order to assess potential risk for freeze damage.

Screenshot of the apple freeze tool.

The application also produces a graph of the conditions over the entire season, as well as a 6-day forecast. Daily temperatures are calculated using 2.5 x 2.5-mile gridded data using a variety of National Weather Service observations and model data, allowing for temperature estimates at locations without a nearby on-farm weather station.

In terms of current conditions, air temperatures are a long way from posing the risk of widespread damage to fruits grown above ground, said Mario Miranda Sazo of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Lake Ontario Tree Fruit Program.

Apple flower buds will typically die off at temperatures between minus-25 to minus-32 degrees Fahrenheit, Sazo said. “The forecasted cold temperatures will probably not have a negative effect on mature apple trees but may affect some young or weak apple trees,” he said.

At the same time, a current snow cover of 2-3 inches in depth is enough to protect root systems from winter damage. However, he said “It would be wise to delay the pruning of apple trees until more normal winter temperatures are experienced in our region.”

Lower thresholds exist for other fruits: peach flower buds are at risk at minus-12 to -20 degrees; plums at minus-2 to minus-25 degrees, with Japanese plums more sensitive.

“There will likely be some flower bud damage to a small proportion of peach, plum, and cherries,” Sazo said.

In addition to tools for freeze damage probability, the Climate Smart Farming program offers applications that monitor drought conditions, provide growing degree day accumulation forecasts, assist in cover crop selection, and other decision supports relevant to farming success in a changing climate.

The Cornell Climate Smart Farming program is a voluntary initiative that helps farmers in New York and the Northeastern U.S. increase farm resiliency to extreme weather and climate variability; reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and increase agricultural productivity and farming incomes sustainably. A team of Climate Smart Farming Extension specialists can help farmers with questions related to best management practices to address extreme cold, precipitation, drought, or other climate impacts.