Climate change is changing our food. A number of reports, including the recently released federal government assessment of climate science, all say that there will be winners and losers when it comes to farming. Production of some crops will increase, and others will decline, or need to switch locations. So what does this all mean for the food produced in our region?
Sometime last June, farmer Matt Herbruck could tell it was going to be a brutal summer. Temperatures were above average, and instead of the usual 12 inches of rain from May through August, he only got two inches all summer. It wasn’t enough water for him to keep growing lettuce and leafy greens.
“So we went big into peppers and eggplants and things like that,” he says. “Unfortunately, peppers are not the most lucrative crop, but we had a lot of them so that was nice.”
Herbruck has been noticing the trend of hot and dry weather, so a few years ago, he added an irrigation system. But it wasn’t enough. Last year his yields were down by half. And after 22 years of farming, Herbruck says it’s undeniable: the climate is changing, and it’s getting more extreme.
“It’s not unusual in this area to go from in the 40s one night to 90 – 36 hours later. It happens. That’s not normal. The weather is crazy. I mean sure I get the weather is variable, but not to that extreme,” he says.
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Franklin Egan, director of Education at PASA, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, hears similar stories from many farmers. He points to data from the USDA that show that while the amount annual rainfall in Pennsylvania and the Northeast U.S. has increased only slightly over the past fifty years, the way it comes down in the Northeast U.S. has changed. More than one inch of rain in a day is considered “extreme rainfall.” Egan says the amount of extreme rainfall in the Northeast has increased 71 percent, far higher than in any other part of the country.
“If you put that together – about the same annual rainfall, but more intense rainfall – that means that Pennsylvania farmers are dealing with this paradox of way too much water at certain points of the year, punctuated by short, but often fairly intense drought periods,” Egan says.
Both extreme wet and dry weather can make farming less reliable. According to Pennsylvania’s Climate Assessment, last updated in 2015, average annual temperatures have risen almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 100 years, and are expected to warm another 5 degrees or more within the next fifty years. The extreme rain events are expected to get worse, and summer heat waves will get more frequent and intense. So places like Harrisburg would feel more like Birmingham, Alabama. Still, Pennsylvania’s Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding says that could be good or bad for farms in the region, depending on what a farm produces.
“There are going to be winners in the conversation, in terms of their ability to grow extended seasons and different crops,” he says. “And there will be a downside, because there’s a lot of production in agriculture that will not be able to tolerate the continued swings of rainfall and temperatures.”
Fruit is one example of that mixed bag. On the upside, the warmer climate means new varieties of fruit – like certain types of apples and peaches normally found further south – are growing well in the Pennsylvania. Improved farming practices could also be driving the success of these new varieties.
And on the downside, the warming conditions are implicated in new, unwanted pests. The Agriculture department recently issued a quarantine in six counties to prevent the spread of the spotted lanternfly – a black, red and white insect that first appeared in Pennsylvania, and the U.S., just a few years ago. It could devastate the state’s tree fruit and grape vineyards. And the plant lanternfly’s need to complete its life cycle is another aggressive invasive that likes warmer temperatures, a tree called Tree of Heaven. “Is there a correlation between warmer temperatures and spotted lanternfly and tree of heaven in our tests?,” Redding asks. “Yes, that’s happening”
These unanticipated changes, and all the variability, mean many farmers have to continually adjust their plans to suit the warming weather. Dairies are adding air conditioning to keep cows cool enough to produce milk. In fields, more farmers are adding irrigation systems for dry periods. And more crops are being grown in hoop houses for better protection from weather and pests.
Vegetable farmer Matt Herbruck says for years now he’s been shifting away from working the fields in July. “I just can’t,” he says. “Stuff doesn’t grow that well, and I’m not going out there when it’s 95-degrees. Who wants to do that?”
He also sees some of the benefits. Nowadays, October is usually still warm enough for planting, so he’s still selling produce in November and December.
Photo at top: cjuneau / flickr