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Can farms bounce back from superstorms like Sandy?

Tom Philpott, writing for Mother Jones, asks how the rise of a “hyper-volatile climate” will continue to affect farms — and our food supply.

First, the argument that the climate is indeed the underlying concern:

Farmers have always lived with what the novelist Henry James called the "imagination of disaster"—the keen sense that there's always something, anything, that can go wrong. In that long interval between sowing tiny seeds and reaping valuable crops, droughts, floods, plagues of pests, tumbling trees, ravaging beasts—all threaten your livelihood and haunt your dreams. But the last seven years have been ridiculous.

In 2005, the sixth-most powerful hurricane ever recorded blitzed into the Mississippi River Delta region, flattening $900 million worth of crops. Just two years after Katrina, a "500-year flood" visited the Midwestern corn belt—which, as the US Geological Survey pointed out at the time, marked the second "500-year flood" in 15 years. In 2011, Texas suffered the most severe 12-month drought in its recorded history, resulting in a stunning $5.2 billion in crop and livestock losses, eclipsing the state's previous record high in crop losses set just five years earlier. Then came last August's Hurricane Irene, which deluged farmlands and destroyed crops from Puerto Rico to Canada, taking a particular toll on farmers in Vermont and New York State. This summer, farmers in the Midwest suffered the worst drought in a generation—which cut into crop yields and sparked yet another global hunger crisis. And now comes unprecedented "superstorm" Sandy.

As Philpott notes, there's nothing you can buy in a bag that can protect a crop from flood or withering drought. But you can improve the farming system itself:

A recent paper in Nature found that "soils managed with organic methods have shown better water-holding capacity and water infiltration rates and have produced higher yields than conventional systems under drought conditions and excessive rainfall." And a recent PLOS One paper found that restoring multiple crops rotations in the Midwest — moving away from simple, efficient corn/soy rotations and reinstating biodiversity — would maintain crop yields with much less agrichemical use.

It's a topic we'll be exploring in great detail over the next year at Harvest Public Media.