Rising tides could threaten farming along Virginia’s coastline

Water levels around Southeast Virginia have risen nearly 20 inches over the past century and they are estimated to keep rising. These rising tides could pose a threat to farming, which has always been a part of coastal Virginia’s economy. Sam Turken reports.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Farming has always been a major part of the economy along Virginia's coastline, but now the region is experiencing the fastest average rate of sea level rise on the Atlantic coast. Sam Turken of local station WHRO reports on how this shift is creating major problems for the area's farmers.

  • Sam Turken:

    Water levels around Southeast Virginia have risen nearly 20 inches over the past century. And it's estimated they could go up about seven feet by 2100. So what does all this mean for coastal farmers around here? Lynn Gayle is still figuring that out.

  • Lynn Gayle, Farmer:

    This is a seaside farm in an area called Fox Grove. In the barrier islands are about a mile to the east of us. My son farms with me, and we tend about 2500 acres. Farming is a lifestyle.

  • Sam Turken:

    Gayle's farmed around here for more than three decades. He goes commodities, corn, soybean, and something called rapeseed, which produces an oil use for engines and plastics. Gayle shows me around a 75 acre field bordering the ocean. Less soybean crops are everywhere, except for one small patch close to the water.

  • Lynn Gayle:

    They were planted here. And you can actually see the salt residue on the soil. Most of those that came up died. Occasional high tides or flood tides, or if there's a nor'easter this would be underwater right here.

  • Sam Turken:

    Gayle says, his watch to see water, encroach farther and farther up this field over the past decade, about an acre is no longer farmable. It's even worse than another field he used to plant, 20 acres completely failed. This is all worrying Gayle's 32 year old son Sands, he grew up playing with tractor toys. Now, he's taking over the business and says hundreds of 1000s of future dollars are at stake.

  • Sands Gayle, Farmer:

    A third of the acreage that I farm could be right on the water and directly affected by sea level rise. And as it takes more area than that, of course, I'm going to have to figure something out.

  • Sam Turken:

    Nationwide, only the gulf coast around Texas and Louisiana is experiencing a faster rate of rising seas. As oceans heat up from climate change, water molecules expand contributing to sea level rise. Another part of the problem scientists see the land around Virginia sinking.

    Cora Baird study sea level rise for the University of Virginia's Coastal Research Center. She says during the last ice age 1000s of years ago, a glacier covered the northeast, pushing down on the Earth's crust. Virginia was at the edge of the glacier and actually lifted kind of like when you sit on a mattress the part behind you sinks, but the area around you bulges up. Baird says those glaciers melted away long ago. But the Earth's crust in this part of Virginia is still reacting.

  • Cora Baird, Site Director, UVA Coastal Research Center:

    Now, we are still doing the process of settling down as if whoever was sitting on the mattress just set up.

  • Sam Turken:

    On top of this, as glaciers continue to melt all over the world, they're sending more water into the oceans, add all of it up. And it's not a question of if some areas will go underwater, but when. Baird says the water isn't just coming in from the ocean, rivers and creeks, it's rising from beneath the land, mixing with groundwater and making the soil wetter and saltier and invisible killer. It's a threat all the way down the Atlantic coast of Florida.

  • Cora Baird:

    If you feel like it's important to continue farming, and it's important to, you know, keep agriculture a part of our sort of landscape and identity where we're in such a confined geographical area. If it keeps pushing in from the edges, there's only so many places we can shift to.

  • Sam Turken:

    Now, there are ways that farmers could hold on for some time, so can dehydrate plants to death, or even poison them. So researchers are testing salt tolerant crops like barley and quinoa. Farmers also can dig ditches and build berms to keep water away or accept the inevitable.

  • Theldnius Cook, Farmer:

    They love wet soils, and they can actually help to soak up some of that water.

  • Sam Turken:

    The Theldnius Cook runs a sustainable produce farm. No fertilizer or pesticides. Problem is the farmland is increasingly soggy as groundwater seeps up from below. So when it rains, water flows off the road on the Cook's fields and has nowhere to go. This is cold enough crops the past few years to translate into a $30,000 loss. Cook who's 42 hopes to adapt to the rising water. But he says there's a good chance farming here can become impossible.

  • Theldnius Cook:

    It makes you feel deflated. Because, you know, you're building something, you know, for the next generation. And you want to make sure that this is here for the next generation.

  • Sam Turken:

    For "PBS News Weekend," I'm Sam Turken, on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

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