KATOWICE, Poland, Dec 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Farming in the Jacuipe Basin of Brazil's parched northeast has never been easy. But rising temperatures and a halving of rainfall over the decades mean it now rarely pays.
"Everybody is saying the climate is changing (and) it's getting more difficult to produce," said Daniele Cesano, a renewable energy developer whose business interests have taken a twist: trying to make cows and cacti pay in a warming world.
Cesano works with more than 100 struggling farmers in the northeast to find new feed for their dairy cattle and new sources of income, while smoothing fluctuations in milk supply.
His business aims to make farmers - and the region's milk supply system - better able to cope with harsher weather linked to climate change.
So far the MAIS (Smart and Sustainable Agro-climate Model) experiment has proven promising enough that it is set to be expanded next year to similarly drought-hit Sicily and Spain.
"I've come to this with the perspective of a project developer. It's something that doesn't exist in agriculture," Cesano said at the U.N. climate talks in Poland last week.
"Conventional agricultural is dominated by a conventional package. If you produce soy, all these multinational companies sell you what you need" - and that stops farmers developing because costs are high and incomes low, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We tried to come up with a different, sustainable package," said Cesano, who runs Adapta Group, a social enterprise working on climate change adaptation.
CORN TO CACTUS
In the Jacuipe Basin, that starts with persuading farmers to stop feeding their cattle corn - which struggles in dry conditions - and start feeding them cactus, which is native to the area and less thirsty.
With older farmers, "it's very difficult to change their mindset," Cesano admitted. Their expectations are low due to the inefficiency of government programmes, he said.
"We say, 'Give us one month or two. If you do what we suggest and don't see results, we will disappear. But if you see results, we have a future together'," he added.
On a 20-hectare farm, that starts with putting in 2.5 hectares of cactus - enough to feed a typical herd of dairy cattle year round, with 50 percent less water, Cesano said.
Farmers begin saving money as they grow their own feed, and can then start to afford key tools, from an electric cactus harvester to a mechanical milking machine, he said.
They also have the means to rehabilitate exhausted pastures, plant trees for fruit and timber, and raise chicken, fish or bees, to create more diverse sources of income.
The most successful farmers have seen a 10-fold increase in profit after a few years of following the approach, Cesano said, while average farmers have quintupled their milk income. Water use on the farms has fallen by half.
The initiative also hooks farmer cooperatives up with commercial credit providers, and helps those wanting to start small businesses selling equipment for the new farming system.
In an area where milk production used to fluctuate by as much as 50 percent between the wet and dry seasons, the changes have brought farmer cooperatives more lucrative contracts with suppliers who depend on a stable supply, Cesano said.
"It becomes a way to transform the value chain," he said. "You get ecosystem regeneration, a good-quality product with carbon reductions, lower water consumption."
Cesano's business received start-up help from the Inter-American Development Bank and the Nordic Development Fund.
But it now makes profits by charging farmers a small fee for technical assistance - sometimes a challenge in a place where government help is often free, he said.
In Poland, the project was recognised by the U.N. "Momentum for Change" initiative, which showcases novel solutions to tackling climate change by communities, cities, companies and others.
"What really makes the MAIS project special is that it helps connect farmers with financial institutions so that they can adapt to climate change while still earning a living and providing food and water security for the region – even during periods of intense drought," said Sarah Marchildon, who leads Momentum for Change.
Cesano now aims to offer the same package to up to 1,000 farmers over the next few years, bringing in development banks and impact investors to "show it's possible to do it at scale".
Already his organisation is working with other farmers growing cocoa and coffee in Brazil's Atlantic coastal forest and running dairy operations in southern Brazil.
"We've got to the point where we have a waiting list," he said.
He thinks the effort can withstand worsening drought in northeast Brazil - though not necessarily for all farmers.
With climate change, drought "is going to get way worse", predicted Cesano. "Only the most professional farmers will stay in business."
Adapta's new method may not be able to save everyone.
"But we have to select the best and make them extremely productive and environmentally conscious. That's our objective," he said.
(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)