In Uruguay, Columbia scientists are working on a forecasting system to help farmers cope with climate change.


Seeds of Hope

As climate change creates agricultural instability around the world, Columbia scientists are testing a seasonal forecasting system in Uruguay to give farmers a fighting chance.

by David J. Craig Published Spring 2015
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Daniel Lalinde on his farm in the Maldonado Department of southeastern Uruguay. /  Photographs by Francesco Fiondella ’01GSAS, ’01JRN

Daniel Lalinde doesn’t need a climate scientist to tell him that the sun shines hotter and brighter than it used to. At El Coraje, his farm in Uruguay’s Garzón hills, he can feel the difference on his face and arms, which burn more easily now. To protect himself, he no longer works his fields between eleven in the morning and four in the afternoon. His cattle are suffering, too: they cling to the edges of their pasture, seeking shelter beneath the tree canopy.

“The summer is very hot, and the winter isn’t as cold. It isn’t even winter,” says Lalinde, who works alongside his wife, Margarita, and a few part­-time farm hands, growing vegetables and raising cattle for beef. “We see extremes in rainfall, too. Either there’s too much rain or not enough. There is no middle ground.”

The Lalindes dug a small reservoir on their land so that the livestock have enough to drink during dry spells. They diligently follow the weather reports on local television, looking for hints about how much water they ought to preserve on any given day. The daily reports are useful, but the Lalindes say that longer­-term forecasts would serve them better. If they knew their pastures were likely to wilt in the summer, for instance, they might buy fewer calves in the spring, to ensure that the cattle they do raise get enough grass to eat. Even minor miscalculations can prove costly: packaged feed is expensive and will eat into their profit margin.

Farmers across the globe must grapple with extreme weather fluctuations, but in Uruguay, a country where more than 80 percent of the land is devoted to raising animals and growing crops, these challenges are felt acutely. This is why the Uruguayan government is working with Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) to create one of the most sophisticated agricultural information networks in the world. The country’s new National Agricultural Information System, funded by a $10 million loan from the World Bank, and developed in partnership with scientists at Uruguay’s National Agricultural Research Institute and the Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture, and Fisheries, will help farmers prepare for each new season by generating remarkably precise climate forecasts that predict temperature and rainfall patterns up to three months in advance. The forecasts will be unusual in their geographic specificity, providing different climate scenarios for about forty distinct regions in this country the size of Florida. The climate data will then be translated into terms useful to farmers — for example, by visiting a website and clicking a map to indicate where he lives, a cattle farmer will learn how much rain is likely to fall on his land over the summer, whether it will be spread out evenly over the season or arrive in a few torrential bursts, and how this could affect groundwater levels and the lushness of his fields.

“The idea is to provide farmers with cutting­edge climate data in terms that anybody can understand.” — Walter Baethgen

“If the fields are going to dry out, maybe he’ll invest in new irrigation equipment instead of buying lots of new calves,” says Walter Baethgen, a Columbia agronomist and environmental scientist who is overseeing the ten IRI researchers who are working on the project.

And if heavy storms are expected on Uruguay’s western coastal lowlands, where flooding has often caused corn, sorghum, and soybean seedlings to wash away?

“Maybe they’ll wait out the rains before they plant,” Baethgen says. “The idea is to provide farmers with cutting-­edge climate data in terms that anybody can understand.”

The new seasonal forecasting service could be transformative for Uruguay, a small democracy of three and a half million people wedged between Brazil and Argentina on the southeast coast of South America. Farm products represent more than two­-thirds of Uruguay’s exports, but in recent years the changing climate has led to poor harvests. While the country has staved off widespread hunger, thanks to ample grain reserves and a modern food-distribution system, it has suffered financially. The last major drought, which occurred in 2008 and lasted almost a year, affected not only farmers but also truckers, storage­-facility owners, grain-­processing-­plant employees, dockworkers, shippers, exporters, commodities investors, and financiers.

Uruguayan farmers commonly dig watering holes on their land to capture rainfall during the wet seasons.“A nation whose economy is based upon agriculture will see its fortunes rise and fall on the shift in the winds,” says Baethgen, a native Uruguayan who came to the United States in 1984 to earn a PhD in crop and soil environmental sciences at Virginia Tech. “That’s the way it’s always been.”

Baethgen, sixty, has devoted much of his career to helping South American farmers survive these shifts. He began this work in the early 1990s, when, as a researcher for the International Fertilizer Development Center, an Alabama-­based nonprofit, he conducted some of the first studies showing how annual yields of wheat, barley, rice, corn, soybeans, cotton, coffee, and many other crops in South America were likely to be affected by climate change. His research, which employed a novel combination of computer-­based climate­ and crop­-simulation models, carried dire warnings: food production on this continent was likely to drop off and to become less consistent from season to season.

“It wasn’t obvious to people at the time that global warming was going to be bad for agriculture in this part of the world,” says Baethgen. “A warmer atmosphere was certainly going to increase precipitation overall, which you’d think would be good for crops. But the science showed that fluctuations in the weather were going to hurt most farmers.”

Baethgen soon published papers describing how farmers could minimize crop losses in extreme weather by adjusting their soil chemistry, planting schedules, and irrigation strategies. He became frustrated, though, at how difficult it was to change behavior. Part of the problem, he found, was that farmers had trouble drawing clear lessons from seasonal climate forecasts. This was understandable because the forecasts available at the time were vague instruments, offering only predictions of whether the average temperature and total rainfall for an entire season would be low, normal, or high. Baethgen also realized that many of his fellow scientists did not effectively communicate their recommendations to farmers: too often they would advise farmers to make certain tilling, planting, or fertilizing decisions based upon a single climate variable. The farmers tended to shrug them off.

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