How European agricultural communities can deal with climate change?
Farming in Øystre Slidre municipality is mainly based on animal husbandry and growing fodder for the animals. Farming is carried out within a short growing season late April to September. The weather conditions (time of snowmelt/snowfall, periods of dry and wet weather) during this season are crucial for agricultural activities. The production of grass for fodder and grazing, which is central to agriculture in Øystre Slide, is influenced by great seasonal and inter-annual variations in climatic conditions.
The weather in summer of 2009 was unusual in several respects, it was first unusually warm and dry and then exceptionally wet. Rainfall in July and August was 65% over the monthly mean and it rained practically every day. Dry weather is important for harvesting and the wet weather posed problems for farmers. Furthermore, the snow settled permanently in early October, a month earlier than usual. Nutrious dry grass fodder can then be harvested in late June or early July and again from late July to late August, depending on the altitude and microclimatic conditions. In contrast, wet summers like the one of 2009, create problems for farmers all over the municipality with regard to harvesting fodder, grazing animals, and completing field preparations. The grass needs to be reasonably dry before harvesting in order to store and use it during the winter. Wet and muddy fields also increase the risk of compresssion damage to the soil during harvest. The extended wet spell in 2009 led to a delay of several weeks in harvesting the second harvest, resulting in excessive grass growth that reduced the nutritious content and palatabilty of the fodder. Many farmers reported a large, but inferior quality of the second harvest. The wet summer of 2009 also led to extra work as the farmers were unable to complete started havestng tasks and hence worked less efficiently. Some had to delay or skip other maintenance tasks and planned social events. Some were unable to plough for the next season, since snow settled unusually early. Inferior fodder, higher levels of bacteria resulting from muddy harvesting conditions, along with poor mountain grazing in some areas due to the wet conditions, led to somewhat reduced quality and quantity of milk and increased fodder needs for some farmers.
The challenges of adaptation to variability in this case is also linked to large changes in the Norwegian agricultural sector over the last four decades. The number of active farmers have decreased, many small farms have closed down and the remaining farms are larger and more industrialised (eg. Higher production intensity, more machinery). In addition, the farming sector has undergone increasing formalisation, meaning that many tasks now need to the reported to authorities.
Despite the difficulties the 2009 season provided for farmers in Øystre Slidre municipality, the study shows that the majority of farmers felt that they were able to manage the extreme climate conditions well and did expect to be back on track during the 2010 season. This was largely due to informal collaboration between farmers and more formalised arrangements provided by the Norwegian authorities.
Different forms of collaboration are particularly important to enable farmers to manage the short growing season, such as in timing activities to appropriate weather conditions.
The study does not go into detail about how farmers perceived the problem but indicate that climate variability (at times extreme) is expected and anticipated in farming communities. Three factors appear to have been important to allow farmers to avoid delay and reduction in fodder during the exceptionally wet 2009 season:
- Access to farming equipment
- Access to labour
- Experience and knowledge in planning activities in a timely fashion.
The social organisation of adaptation to climate varaibility and other stressors is founded on traditions of assistance and collaboration between farmers. This has been complemented with formal arrangements for example that farmers are entitled to assistance/ labour for a number of days each year.
Farming equipment, critical to act quickly and harvest and pack hay, is shown to be accessed in two different ways. The case shows that sharing arrangements with other farmers (extended family and neighbours) was common to access machines through critical times of the season. Such sharing arrangement were most often informal and run had run between families for generations. Farming households with mostly off-farm incomes relied on hiring machinery through formal arrangements, e.g. firms renting equipment.
Access to labour is similarly to farming equipment important to act timely and quickly during harvest season. This is typically organised through relations both within and between households. Similar to accessing equipment those households with mostly off-farm incomes foremost hired labour.
Other forms of collaboration included mutual assistance in farming tasks between neighbours. Collaborations between farming households are also shown to be vital for knowledge transfers, where farmers discuss the use of seeds, manure, fertilisers and other issues such as when the grass is ready for harvest and how different micro climatic conditions influence farming. The 2009 event showed that past experience and acquired local ecological knowledge enable farmers to plan carefully and to deal reasonably well with the difficult weather conditions.
The type of adaptation solution implemented depended on people and the social relations and collaborations among farmers. The localised solution drew mainly on farmers’ traditional adaptation strategies and their traditional knowledge with the additional support of formal support from authorities, for example the possibility of farmers to hire additional labour.
However, the case cautions that this traditional way of adapting to climate variability is stretched due to broader structural reforms in the agricultural sector. Less active farms lead to weakening forms of collaboration, reduction of trust relations between farms and knowledge transfer of specific ecological and climatic conditions. The strengthening of formal systems of assistance may counteract such trends, for example state support to hire substitute labour as well as equipment and services.
The local government’s role lies in enabling such formal support systems but the mainstay of adaptation activities in this case is undertaken by local people incrementally, rather than a formal policy/ action. It was foremost financed by individual farming households, with additional support from the Norwegian government.
Occupations that rely upon natural resources and climatic conditions do often have a repertoire of strategies and knowledge that can aid adaptation to climate variability and change. It is important and cost-effective for local governments to map such strategies and to be aware of formal measures that may strengthen or weaken informal and continuous adaptation strategies. While local adaptive capacity is critical for climate change adaptation it may be problematic that too much responsibility it placed on the local level. The broader impacts of structural reforms on local adaptive capacity and traditional ecological knowledge need to be considered. The Øystre Slidre case shows that the conditions for local climate change adaptation such as structural reforms within the agricultural sectors are decisions taken at national and at times even international levels. Agricultural politics, trends towards fewer and larger farms, new economic opportunities within the tourism sector, urbanisation and reduced profitability in the agricultural sector compared with other sectors are important factors that influence local adaptive capacity. Both national and local strategies to support climate adaptation need to be aligned to support farmers to deal with climate variability and other stressors.