The Caribbean landscape is littered with small farmers who are at the frontline of the fight to combat climate change. But with the 3 U’s of climate change – its unprecedented nature, its unpredictability and the need for urgency – stacked against them, the question begs: Is it possible for farmers to improve their resilience to climate change without increasing global emissions?
The small farmers of the region live and work on their mixed crop farms, which provide the farmer and their family with a steady income throughout the year. But most of these farms are 5 ha or less and they are usually perched on hillsides prone to erosion. Climate change is impacting the lives and livelihoods of these farm families in unprecedented ways as they grapple with the issue of maintaining their income streams.
The climate has become unpredictable with differing weather patterns and in some cases this leads to changes (shorter/longer) in growing seasons. So, farmers have to change the way they do agriculture and they have to adjust their production systems in an effort to cope. There is an urgency to look back at the de-modernisation of small-scale agricultural systems in order to assist the farmers in moving forward, to build their resilience to climate change.
The resources that the farmer uses to produce are the land (soil), water (stored or rainfed) and labour (manual or mechanical). This means that farmers can increase their production efficiency by smartly managing and using these resources in a changing climate, which will enable them to build their resilience without increasing emissions. Farmers have to become climate-smart and climate proof their operations.
However, I hasten to caution that there are no quick fixes to the impact of climate change, particularly those caused by a slow onset event, such as the increasing temperature. Being climate-smart demands that farmers take a holistic and systematic approach to the management of farm resources. To achieve these goals there is a need to also understand the resources at their disposal.
My top four recommendations for farmers to better manage available resources are:
- Soil is one of the largest carbon sinks. Lowering soil disturbance on small farms by removing mechanical weeding and resorting to hand weeding can be a win-win solution, as it can increase carbon storage and the greenhouse gases (GHGs) sequestered can lead to healthier plants and higher yields. However, this can be labour intensive and therefore demands the use of innovative practices, such as the use of mulch to control weeds and conserve soil moisture.
- Water harvesting and conservation should be prioritised. Farmers should catch and use every drop of water that falls with a gravity feed. This eliminates the need for pumped water and reduces the use of fuel used to power the pumps.
- Fruit trees are also good carbon sinks. Farmers should plant more to provide water, food and shade from the extreme heat (which is increasing with climate change).
- Crops can be food and fuel. Farmers need to start to look seriously at planting crops for fuel as well as food. Instead of sugarcane they should look at varieties of energy cane, which provide both energy and sugar. This will help to reduce the use of fossil fuels to produce energy.
Being climate-smart demands that the farmers of today recognise that climate change is now an undeniable challenge that they must contend with. They need to become innovators with a willingness to experiment to build their resilience and lower GHG emissions.