Valley Farmers Hit by Global Warming

Record heat and little rain has Valley farmers scrambling to irrigate their crops. Some wells are going dry, forcing farmers to drive their tractors with tanks on their trailers long distances to pump water out of rivers and ponds.

Vern Grubinger is Extension Professor of Agriculture at the University of Vermont. He has worked with a program of the federal agriculture department’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) project. The program looked at the effects of global warming on farmers.

The Valley Post’s Eesha Williams spoke with Grubinger at the professor’s office in Brattleboro. This is an updated version of an article by Williams that originally appeared in the Valley Advocate newspaper. Grubinger reviewed and updated this article on June 29, 2009. The Post appreciates the time he spent doing that.

VALLEY POST: Are farmers here in the Valley already seeing the effects of global climate change?

GRUBINGER: The data from a century of weather-station records show that some things that directly impact farming in New England have changed. The frost free growing season is definitely longer –eight days longer now compared to a century ago. For some farmers that’s good. For example, grass-based dairy operations have more days of grazing.

The average annual temperature has also changed. It’s almost two degrees warmer than a century ago, with winter temperatures averaging three degrees warmer on average. That affects different crops in different ways. Grape growers may have an easier time, due to less winter injury. For other farmers, it may not be so good. There are studies that have shown lower apple yields following warmer winters. Other factors also affect local orchards, such as competition from the global and national marketplace. These may be of greater immediate importance than growing conditions.

VALLEY POST: What about dairy farmers?

GRUBINGER: Farm animals are affected by what we call the "temperature-humidity index." Somewhere in the 70 degree range, stress kicks in for animals. The higher the humidity, the lower the temperature at which that happens. So as it gets hotter, the productivity of these animals, whether it’s milk production or weight gain, may be reduced. In many cases farmers may have to spend more money to keep their animals cool, whether it’s barn modifications to improve ventilation, or planting shade trees in pastures. In some parts of the country where it’s already very hot, dairy farmers may have to install air conditioning in their barns. No one can say for certain when that will be. But if you look at the future price of electricity, air conditioning may not be viable.

VALLEY POST: Vegetable and berry farms are an increasingly important part of the farm economy in the Valley. How is global warming affecting them?

GRUBINGER: The good news with vegetables and berries is a longer growing season, and potentially less winter injury. I prefer the term "climate change" to "global warming" because it’s not just that temperatures are going up. Precipitation is becoming more erratic. Precipitation is harder to predict because it’s so localized. But there is good data that show the number of extreme precipitation events – two inches of rainfall over a two day period – has been going up steadily in all the locations in the Northeast that have records. So there’s greater risk for soil erosion as well as root diseases in certain crops, like corn. When your soil is saturated you’re more likely to have root diseases, and we’ve been seeing this with Phytophthora root rot that affects pumpkins and other crops on soils with poor drainage. It’s likely that farmers will have to spend more on drainage for water management.

To improve drainage, people around here can use grading and swales to divert surface water from fields, though that may not be needed on well drained soils like those along the Connecticut river. Prevention is also important, so the first steps for farmers are avoiding compacting their soil by, for example, not driving heavy tractors on wet fields, and by avoiding sub-soiling, a form of deep tillage that can slow drainage. Farmers in areas with more clay soil types than we have here have been installing underground perforated pipes for drainage. That’s an expensive alternative.

The other aspect of erratic rainfall is the time when there’s little of it. That’s easier to deal with by adding water to the soil. We have already seen most vegetable farms in New England going from not having irrigation systems 30 years ago to, today, most having them. That’s partly because the technology has become more affordable, with trickle irrigation replacing overheard sprinklers. Part of it is that the paybeak is more obvious since droughty times seem to be getting more common.

Climate change is bringing changes in weed pressure, too. Perennial weeds like thistle and quack grass can harvest the increased CO2 we’re seeing in the atmosphere and store it underground. That gives them an advantage over annual crops. The effect of CO2 on crops is more complicated . Research suggests that some crops may put on more growth, or biomass, with elevated carbon dioxide and temperature, but not necessarily make more of the harvestbale part of the plant. So you could have a larger potato plant with fewer tubers, for example.

VALLEY POST: So far, have farmers here in the Valley seen any major impact on their bottom line from climate change?

GRUBINGER: No. People who are growing European grapes have probably seen their profits go up slightly because of better winter survivability. People who raise sugar maple trees or potatoes might have been hurt slightly compared to prior growing conditions. As the climate has changed, the ideal geographic area for those crops has been slowly moving northward. It’s going to be a long transition. For a generation or two, we’re more likely to have sick maples in the forests in southern areas of the northeastern U.S., rather than a sudden disappearance.

VALLEY POST: To some extent farmers here in the Valley are competing with supermarket prices, so their profitability is affected by how well farmers in Mexico and California are doing in the case of vegetables, in Washington state for apples, and in the Mid-West for dairy. Do you know how climate change will affect farmers in the Valley versus how it will affect farmers in California and other parts of the world?

GRUBINGER: Not really. My sense is that the price of fuel for long-distance transportation will have a bigger effect. If we start to have European fuel prices, that will help our local farms.

VALLEY POST: Has the change in climate we’ve already seen affected the pests farmers in the Valley are dealing with?

GRUBINGER: It’s hard to know. There seems to be more corn earworm and leafhopper pressure. There are certainly increases in flea beatle populations, but some of that is because farmers around here are growing different crops than in times past -- like mesclun mix – that attract different pests. But the less harsh the winter is, the more some insects are going to overwinter in the fields.

VALLEY POST: For a young person who’s thinking of getting into farming in the Valley, what’s your sense about whether that will be economically viable 10 or 25 years from now?

GRUBINGER: Farming won’t be an easy way to making a living, it never has been - but it will continue to be possible to do it here, especially with renewed interest in local foods. We’re lucky that farmland here is still more affordable than in a lot of other places, though that’s starting to change. The cost of health insurance and housing is a problem for farmers – more of a problem than climate change. Fifty years from now climate could be a much bigger factor.

VALLEY POST: Are any farms in the Valley going to be put out of business by climate change in the next 10 years?

GRUBINGER: No. We’re talking about future generations. It’s all about how much risk we want to take for our children and grandchildren. Slowing climate change is like turning an ocean liner around. We’re not going to bang a U-turn. Farmers can reduce their use of fertilizers and pesticides that are produced with fossil fuels. If we can find ways to use above-ground carbon for energy – firewood, grass pellets, biodiesel – instead of below ground carbon like oil, that’s going to help. Everyone can help by choosing to eat locally grown food that doesn’t have to be moved great distances.

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ADDITIONAL INFO

by Eesha Williams

A 2005 University of New Hampshire study found that average winter temperatures in the northeastern US had gone up 4.4 degrees in the previous 30 years. The study says between 1970 and 2000 the number of days with snow on the ground in the northeast decreased by 16 days.

The $20 million a year maple syrup industry in the northeast will be almost completely eliminated, according to a 2005 study by Clean Air, Cool Planet, an environmental group. (The study doesn’t say when this will happen.) The study says hemlock, red spruce and white pine forests in central and southern New England will be especially hard hit, reducing the profitability of the logging industry, which in turn can cause landowners to sell forest land for development to pay property taxes. As winters warm, Lyme disease bearing ticks are moving northward from southern New England.

World-wide, 2005 was the hottest year ever recorded by NASA’s Goddard Institute. Eight of the ten hottest years on record have been since 1996. Scientists are now almost unanimous in saying global warming is caused by air pollution caused by people.

Global warming isn’t the only problem caused by air pollution. According to the non-profit group Earthjustice, every year in the US approximately 70,000 premature deaths are caused by air pollution. That’s why many environmental groups are calling on the federal government to follow Europe’s lead by dramatically increasing the gas tax and using the money to bring down the cost of hybrid cars, and to improve public transit, bicycle paths and sidewalks.

Another way to cut air pollution is to reduce the amount of energy used in buildings, for heating, air conditioning, lighting, industrial machinery, and home appliances. This is the mission of groups like the nationally known, rate-payer funded Efficiency Vermont. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) spending one dollar on efficiency saves more electricity than can be created by spending one dollar on generation. That’s not including the "external costs" of power generation – like global warming, lung cancer treatment, and nuclear waste storage. The two biggest sources of electricity in the US are coal and nuclear.

And, NRDC says, on a per-dollar basis, efficiency programs create more jobs than power generation – jobs that are more likely to go to local, self-employed insulation installers and other tradespeople than to giant corporations like the Valley’s own Entergy Nuclear.

For people who don’t want to wait for the federal government to rein in the oil, coal, and nuclear industries, homesteading is an immediate option. This can include traveling on foot or by bicycle whenever possible; growing as much of one’s own food as possible; heating with wood; generating ones own electricity with solar, wind, or small-scale hydro power; and reducing electricity use.

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