Rain or Shine, Climate Change Pushes Farmers to the Brink
Mother Nature has been unkind to farmers this year. Last week, the NewsHour talked to cherry farmers in Michigan who lost 90 percent of their crops when an early spring warm-up meant trees were battered by frosts after blooming early. A drought sweeping the Corn Belt killed crops and raised food prices this summer, leaving farmers without profits and ranchers without feed for their livestock.
These are just some of the new normals for farmers around the world, said Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute for the Environment at the University of Minnesota. We spoke with Foley at the Aspen Environment Forum this summer about what these changes in climate have meant for farmers.
With the help of the Public Insight Network and Harvest Public Media, we reached out to farmers to ask them how their businesses have been affected by changes in their local climates. Here are a few of the answers we received, which have been edited for length and clarity.
Merlin Friesen’s grass-finished herd in a more typical “green” spring in 2011. Photo by Merlin Friesen.
Merlin Friesen from Filley, Neb.:
The dramatically warm winter and early spring was unprecedented. Then, the moderately dry winter turned into a severely dry spring, which many old-timers around here say they’ve never witnessed. Spring rains are a mainstay of farming around here, and we’ve had no significant rain for over 6 weeks, coupled with higher than normal temperatures. At this time, our pastures have quit growing, and we are struggling to irrigate the market garden adequately. And the hot, dry weather has so far severely curtailed production of strawberries, lettuce, beets, onions, garlic, and sweet corn. I fear that these increasingly severe dry periods may make it difficult to raise vegetables in our area. Irrigation does not fully replace the cool moist conditions that vegetable crops thrive in. Also, we will be forced to sell about 1/2 of the breeding stock in our beef herd in the next few weeks, due to vanishing pasture.
Ariel Russell from Glen Ellen, Cali.:
The weather has become completely erratic: late frosts, cold summer nights (10 degrees colder than in the past), cool summer days, warm winters, rain in late spring and not in the heart of winter, early rain, wind all the time, more weather disturbances in the summer. The high-value, summer season crops that comprise the bulk of our income simply don’t grow consistently or healthily. Throughout the last three years, we have seen a marked increase in blights and fungus due to cold, damp weather and have lost entire crops of tomatoes, peppers, melons and squash. The weather has shortened our productive season so much that we don’t know how much longer we can afford to farm.
Lynda Hopkins from Healdsburg, Cali.:
My husband grew up on the property where we farm so he’s very familiar with long-term weather patterns. Growing up, he was used to long, hot, dry summers — tomato, pepper, and eggplant weather. However, the only “classic Sonoma County” summer we’ve had was our first one five seasons ago. Since then, late, cool, wet springs and foggy midsummer mornings have prevailed. Then again, this summer has been essentially horrible for growing crops of any variety. It has swung between extremes of cold and hot — within the course of one week, we experienced a temperature spike to 107 and then a cool, drizzly day in the 50s and 60s. Our brassica crops (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) have been 1/3 the size they normally would be. Instead of nice, big heads of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, we have miniatures — meaning our yield is down considerably. And yet, due to the cool weather, we’re not as far along as we would have been (with respect to ripening) had we experienced a simply hot summer. Germination has also been tricky, and we had one of the worst germination rates ever on our winter squash field — perhaps due to the soil temperature swinging from hot (i.e. good for germinating squash) to cold.
Ed Staude owns a vineyard outside of St. Louis, Mo.:
Earlier warm weather has pushed harvest up into the late summer instead of fall, [which can] really affect the wines we produce from those grapes. We have also had some unseasonably warm temperatures cause blossoming only to have the blossoms destroyed by a return to deep cold. In 2007 we lost our entire crop to that sort of phenomena. With grapes our biggest problem is mold and fungus. Cool wet springs with wildly varying temperatures have placed bigger than ever demands on growers to use spray fungicides in order to keep the grapes from being affected.
In 2011 a heavy snowfall caused Rob Maddox’s barn to collapse. The damage cost him $15,000. Photo by Rob Maddox.
Rob Maddox grows organic produce in Bethlehem, Conn.:
[In 2011] we had record snow that caused a barn to collapse. Then we had record rain that decreased our potato crop and tomato crop by half. This year has now started with a dry spell and up until last week [we] were watering every day. It cost $15,000 to clean up the barn that collapsed. I lost over $10,000 in crop failures in 2011.
Maddox added over the phone that increased moisture at the end of this summer has led to a blight on his tomato crop.
If you work in agriculture and want to share your experiences coping with changes in climate, you can tell us here. To tell the NewsHour how you have experienced climate changing where you live, please fill out this form with the Public Insight Network.
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