Alabama grower Myron Johnson talking with Wendy-Lin Bartels, an anthropologist with the Southeast Climate Consortium. NOAA photo by Brian Kahn.
The North Florida Research and Education Center is a collection of dated-looking, low-slung buildings surrounded by fields that look like anywhere else. Yet in early February this year, this average-looking experimental farm an hour outside of Tallahassee was home to a remarkably innovative gathering.
Shortly before 9 a.m, Wendy-Lin Bartels, an anthropologist with the Southeast Climate Consortium, was at the center welcoming farmers, extension agents, and climate and agriculture researchers as they trickled in from Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.
Bartels had invited them to the center to talk about how scientists could better communicate seasonal climate forecasts and how farmers could use them with better results. There were plenty of familiar faces. Some had been coming to these meetings since they began in April 2010.
Among the regulars she wasn’t surprised to see coming through the research station doors was Myron Johnson, a row crop farmer from Alabama. Johnson had had great success using last summer’s seasonal forecast to help make planting decisions on his 2,000-acre farm.
Kirk Brock walking in caught Bartels a little off-guard, though. Last summer was a different story on Brock’s northern Florida farm. While he hadn’t “lost the farm,” the decisions he had made based on the seasonal forecast hadn’t worked out as well as he hoped. Yet there he was, back for more.
Driving through southern Alabama and Florida, you notice that almost every unpaved surface is green. Despite the lushness, farming in the Southeast is a bit of a gamble.
The soil is marginal at best, leached of nutrients and scoured away by eons of rain that often falls in a torrent. Winters may be mild, but summer temperatures, and therefore evaporation rates, are high. From far away, periodic warming and cooling in the tropical Pacific ocean—El Niño and La Niña cycles—can drastically alter seasonal rainfall in the Southeast. La Niña often brings crippling droughts that can swallow a farmer’s fortunes.
In short, things can change quickly and often. As Brock explained when I visited his farm, “We don’t have 50 years of experience. We have 50 one-year experiences.”
It’s against this backdrop that farmers in the region have to make a living, and they’re looking for an edge anywhere they can find it. For Kirk Brock and Myron Johnson, the search for that edge means thinking beyond the afternoon weather and putting confidence in science.