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MAY 2020

Farming, Food, and Climate Change in New Jersey

Changes in agriculture – and our diets – can help farmers adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

New Jersey farmers do about a billion dollars of business a year, and like all businesses that depend on natural resources they are directly affected by climate change. While certain climate impacts, like a longer growing season, may boost productivity, other climate-related trends are adding uncertainty and risk to an already challenging way of life.

Changes in weather patterns having to do with temperature and precipitation are perhaps the most difficult to manage. Average temperatures in New Jersey have increased 2.9°F over the last century, and periods of extreme hot weather are expected to become more frequent. The growing season is expanding, and winters are milder. The 13 warmest years have occurred since 1990, and 2012 was the warmest year on record.

Extreme heat reduces crop productivity, stresses livestock, and is a potential health hazard to farm workers. Early spring warming can be especially damaging to fruit trees that are “fooled” into budding prematurely and then shocked by a cold snap.

With milder winters, crops like cranberries and northern blueberries that require long chilling periods for optimum growth may not be as productive as they once were. Warmer winters and extended growing seasons mean that harmful insects are active longer and may survive winter in greater numbers. Rising temperatures also encourage the northward spread of pests, weeds, and pathogens from the southern states.

Climate change is altering rainfall patterns, too. 2018 was the wettest year on record in New Jersey, capping an upward trend in precipitation of 2.9 inches over the last century. Rain and snow aren’t distributed evenly over the seasons, however. Heavy downpours are becoming heavier, which increases the risk of soil erosion, nutrient runoff into streams and lakes, and crop damage caused by flooding. And though it seems contradictory, dry spells are expected to occur more frequently, reducing productivity of crops and livestock and raising irrigation costs.

Meanwhile, along the coast, sea level rise is causing salt water to advance farther inland, increasing flooding that can encroach on farm fields, threatening freshwater supplies, and leaving behind tracts of dead trees that have come to be known as “ghost forests.”

As temperatures rise and weather becomes more volatile, farmers are doing what they have always done in the face of changing conditions – adapt. Methods vary depending on circumstances, but common adaptations include diversifying crops, using hoop houses or low tunnels to address weather variability, practicing various water-conservation methods, managing heat stress in livestock, elevating infrastructure in flood-prone areas, and using wind machines to protect vineyards and orchards from frost damage.

Improving soil health is another key strategy. Practices like no- or low-till agriculture, cover crops, and rotational grazing are part of a constellation of practices often called regenerative agriculture that uses natural processes to rebuild soil with organic matter, making it more resilient to climate impacts and boosting its capacity to capture – or sequester – atmospheric carbon.

Soil rich in organic material has a greater capacity to retain moisture during dry spells and absorb water during wet periods. Beneficial organisms thrive in healthy soil, producing stronger, more nutritious plants and reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizers. Cover crops protect against erosion. And minimal tillage protects soil structure and prevents carbon dioxide stored in the soil from escaping into the atmosphere.

Other methods of cutting back emissions of carbon dioxide and other potent heat-trapping gases such as methane and nitrous oxide include the more efficient use of fertilizers, processing manure with anaerobic digesters, and of course increasing the proportion of renewable energy.

Vegetables at the Hunterdon Land Trust farmers market in Flemington, NJ
Cranberry harvest

But food production is only half the story. The other part has to do with consumption – the types of food we choose to eat, where and how that food is grown and processed, and the quantity of food we waste.

As a general rule, a plant-rich diet has a lighter carbon footprint – and is healthier – than a diet heavy on meat. According to the World Resource Institute, lamb, goat, and beef have the highest greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein, followed by dairy, pork, and poultry. Fish and sources of plant-based protein such as beans, lentils, and nuts are at the low end of the emissions scale.

Other considerations include the amount of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide used in food production, the type of processing and packaging, and the distance traveled from farm to market. Generally speaking, foods with the fewest fossil-fuel inputs are the most climate-wise choice.

Minimizing food waste is also critical. According to the USDA, 30 to 40 percent of food in the U.S. is not eaten – a waste of labor, capital, energy, water, and land, and an avoidable source of greenhouse gases. To make matters worse, when food is discarded, it ends up in landfills emitting methane as it decomposes.

Meet the Climate Corps

Angel Alguera, Rutgers Climate CorpsAngel Alguera
I am a first-year Atmospheric Science master’s degree student in the Department of Environmental Sciences, and my work focuses on meteorology and applications of climate change resiliency. My professional interests include severe weather forecasting and community preparedness regarding weather-related disasters. I work with Dr. James Shope at the NJ Climate Change Resource Center to produce applied research and reports relevant to New Jersey stakeholders. I currently assist with climate change data analysis, large dataset management, and report writing.

Daniel GilkesonDaniel Gilkeson
I’m a second-year master’s student in the City and Regional Planning Program with a concentration in environmental planning. As a planner, I hope to build more resilient communities in the face of increased risk due to climate change. With the Climate Change Resource Center, I am working on a project to aid the state in an update of its floodplain buyout program, known as Blue Acres, to be more proactive and comprehensive. Prior to this position, I interned in the Community and Economic Development Office at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Association. I’m also an AmeriCorps alum, having completed a year of service working on affordable housing in Nashville, Tennessee.

Benjamin GoldbergBenjamin Goldberg
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in climate adaptation and resiliency planning, with experience in sustainable food systems. I joined the Climate Corps last summer to help develop a GIS-based food waste recovery tool, and currently support community resilience through flood vulnerability analysis. I hold a B.A. from Middlebury College and a Certificate in Ecological Horticulture from UC Santa Cruz.

Surya Jacob, Rutgers Climate CorpsSurya Jacob
I am a graduate student in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School concentrating in community development, focused on housing, land and finance, as well as pursuing the Real Estate Development/Redevelopment Certification. Prior to Bloustein, I worked as an architect and interior designer in India and Canada and am pivoting towards a career in urban planning to engage in extensive projects at the macro level. My interests include affordable and mixed income housing, urban redevelopment, and housing finance, and I am deeply passionate about climate resilience in community planning. Being part of Climate Corps is a foundational step towards helping to solve equity issues in vulnerable communities along the coastal region.

Vineesh Das Kodakkandathil, RutgersVineesh Das Kodakkandathil
I am an urban planner with five years of professional experience in community-led ecotourism development and land use and environment management planning in ecologically sensitive areas. I have worked on and conducted extensive environmental sensitivity analyses, flood and landslide vulnerability assessments, and human impact assessments with the help of GIS tools. I’m currently pursuing my master’s in City and Regional Planning at Bloustein School with a concentration in Transport Planning and GIS.

Douglas LeungDouglas Leung
I am working with the Climate Change Resource Center to identify vulnerable communities and places affected by climate-induced flooding in coastal New Jersey municipalities. I am a Master of City and Regional Planning candidate at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. As a planner, I want to develop strategies and solve problems affecting our cities and communities that enable more equitable outcomes in housing and transportation. I am also a recent Army veteran, having served as a company commander of recruiting in the northern suburbs of Chicago and as a reconnaissance platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division. For fun, I enjoy weightlifting, running, reading fiction, and board games.

Nihar MhatreNihar Mhatre
I am a master’s candidate in city and regional planning at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, focusing on urban design and land use planning. Before being accepted at Rutgers, I worked as an architect at JD Studio and had my own architectural practice, Vastu Insights. My research interests revolve around designing and developing climate change adaptation and resilience strategies to promote equity in urban landscapes. Having the opportunity to work on real-world projects through Climate Corps will be an essential step in the development of my understanding of addressing climate change issues in vulnerable regions.

Justin MorrisJustin Morris
Justin is a master’s student at Rutgers University studying discovery informatics and data sciences. He is working under Professor Mark Rodgers to develop an optimization model that will act as a decision support tool for university financial investments with the end goal of eliminating Rutgers’ scope 2 emissions. He is excited to apply his background in data analytics and mathematical programming to help the university fight climate change.

Josephine O'GradyJosephine O’Grady
I am a first-year student in the Master of Public Policy program. Through the Coastal Climate Risk and Resilience (C2R2) certification, I am focusing a significant portion of my graduate coursework on topics including coastal geomorphology, environmental justice, and hazard mitigation planning. Before beginning my studies at the Bloustein School, I received my bachelor’s degree in public health from Kean University, where I first became interested in how coastal dynamics shape lived experiences. I previously served as an intern at the New Jersey State Policy Lab and currently work for the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

Jessica Parineet Jessica Parineet
I am a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the Bloustein School with a strong interest in climate change policy and related topics. In my previous work, I gained experience in a number of dimensions of climate change issues through carbon capture storage research, urban heat island research, and community level engagement as I am currently on the Student Advisory Board for the Rutgers Office of Climate Action. I am excited to expand on my interests in environmental justice and local level resilience planning through my involvement in the Climate Corps.

Dillon Patel Dillan Patel
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in Environmental Planning and International Development. I have previously worked as an economist performing cost-benefit analysis and conducting monitoring and evaluation for renewable energy in developing countries. I have also spent a summer in western Massachusetts mapping stormwater infrastructure and working with planners to identify suitable places for green stormwater infrastructure.

Moira Sweeder, Rutgers Climate CorpsMoira Sweeder
I am a graduate student enrolled in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School. My concentration is environmental planning with a focus on coastal resilience. Before pursuing my master’s degree at Rutgers, I studied sustainability at Stockton University. During this time, I interned for the PSEG Institute of Sustainability Studies, the Jacques Cousteau National Estuary Research Reserve, and NJ Audubon. I am thrilled to now be a part of the Climate Corps, researching coastal resilience as a part of the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

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