DEANSBORO — Good topsoil is the bedrock of the agriculture industry.

It's also the part most impacted by a changing climate.

If projections from the Fourth National Climate Assessment come to pass, it could severely impact numerous factors of the regional agriculture industry.

And that, in turn, could change the makeup of the rural communities it supports.

The study suggests numerous possibilities for climate change in the United States. These projections vary depending on the amount of population growth, the amount of technological innovation and the carbon intensity increase of global energy over time.

The study also predicts an increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events in many parts of the United States, including the Northeast.

Among other negative impacts, this would increase the potential for soil erosion, the report found, which in turn would increase sedimentation into receiving water bodies and reduce agriculture productivity.

That runoff, amounting to a loss of organic matter in topsoil (i.e. carbon and other organic material) means that the soil’s ability to retain water lessens, making it harder to grow crops, said Troy Bishopp, owner and manager of Bishopp Family Farm, a grass farm in Deansboro.

"Organic matter is the glue in the soil, it’s the sponge," he said. "If there’s none of that, then when it rains hard it runs off."

More organic matter also makes it easier to sustain crop production, he said. It’s added through crop residue and natural fertilizers like manure or compost.

But that process of adding organic matter takes time, and with greater recent extremes in weather, soil erosion becomes much more prevalent, said Jeff Miller, agronomist at Cornell Cooperative Extension Oneida County.

"When you look at how long it takes to develop an inch of soil, it’s not something that you want to lose," he added.

Farmers have tried to use cover crops — or crops grown to protect and enrich the soil — where they can. They’ve also tried to reduce the amount of tilling to limit soil erosion.

But that doesn’t change how extreme weather could limit when plants are planted and harvested. That happened to some farmers this year, who haven’t yet harvested some of their grain crops, Miller said.

"We’re definitely seeing extremes," he added, "and that is impacting several aspects of crop growth and development."

From soil to milk

While the impacts of a warming climate seem negative, not all are entirely bad. However, the ostensible positives also create potential challenges.

The report predicts that, by the middle of the century, the changing climate will extend the days between the last spring freeze and the first fall freeze. How many days that would increase depends on the scenario; in the most extreme model, freeze free periods in the Northeast could increase by roughly two to three weeks.

A longer, warmer growing period in itself would benefit a few different crop industries, Miller said, like apples and pears.

"We’ve seen the grape industry could benefit," said Steve Ammerman, public affairs manager for the New York Farm Bureau. "But at the same time, if you have warmer conditions you also have more pests you have to deal with that could be harmful to crop production, so we have to try and mitigate (that)."

Similarly, the dairy industry could benefit from warmer winters, too. Miller said that cows thrive in 45-degree Fahrenheit weather. Though warmer summers would negatively impact milk production and herd health, it may also "benefit from the changing climate over the next half-century due to greater productivity over a longer growing season," the report states.

If farmers have the available funds, Ammerman suggested, they could invest in new innovation that could help cows adapt to an expected rise in summer temperatures by the end of the century, like misters and fans to keep cows cool.

But that can be a big "if." Dairy farmers currently are struggling with low milk prices, making it hard to reinvest in infrastructure.

And for dairy farms that grow their own crops for cattle forage — the "cheapest way to feed a cow," Bishopp said — soil erosion could also impact the production of milk.

"Part of being resilient and adaptable is (being) profitable," Bishopp said. "I can’t farm 100 acres if I’m not profitable."

The climate report suggests that the biggest driver in mitigating risks is "the ability of producers to adapt to changes," which "depends on changes in food prices as well as local-to-global trade levels" in the face of changing production and consumption patterns.

Progress toward that research has continued in past years, Ammerman said, commending Cornell Cooperative Extensions and the state for facilitating new agriculture technology. The recent farm bill also provides resources for that, Ammerman said.

Bishopp, meanwhile, is bracing for change.

"It doesn’t matter what we think, or what political party or whatever we believe — it’s just going to come," he said. "And it may just stop ... maybe it’ll be fine in five years. But over the last 20 years, I keep records, and I see really weird things."