By Chip Rowe
David Wolfe feels for the farmers.
A professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University, Wolfe has studied the effect of climate change on crops grown in the Hudson Valley and New York state for 30 years.
Farmers are accustomed to dealing with the vagaries of weather, but, still, Wolfe says he has been stunned by how quickly conditions are degrading. The average temperature in New York has risen about 11 degrees in the past 15,000 years; without dramatic intervention to lower the level of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, it may jump 6 to 8 degrees within the next 100.
“No farmers in the history of modern agriculture have seen the pace of change projected for this century,” Wolfe says.
The rising temperature will lead to more intense and lengthy summer droughts that shrivel crops and the udders of the state’s 620,000 dairy cows, which prefer the thermostat at a cool 72 degrees or lower.
But it also brings challenges year-round.
In New York, global warming is creating more intense spring downpours, which saturate fields and delay planting and, subsequently, harvest. These heavy rainfalls have increased more in the Northeast than in any other part of the country. Heavy rains also increase the likelihood of potato and tomato blight and fungal problems in root vegetables such as carrots.
Farmers will benefit from a longer growing season, because the warm temperatures cause perennials to bloom earlier. But that doesn’t decrease the risk of frost and freeze damage. When plants bloom too soon, they are vulnerable if the temperature drops again. That’s what happened to the fruit crop in New York in 2016. Also in 2012. And 2007.
Insects such as the corn earworm, flea beetle and stinkbug prefer a nice summer day and, as temperatures rise, are pushing their way north. While all plants thrive when exposed to carbon dioxide, invasive weeds with deep roots such as poison ivy and kudzu do especially well. Studies have found invaders become more resistant to herbicides such as Roundup when grown in a high CO2 environment.
What can farmers do? They must adapt, if they can afford to. Cornell University and other institutions are trying to help by assessing which direction things are moving, and which crops might work best 10, 20 and 30 years from now. But it’s difficult in the meantime to enjoy longer growing seasons if your fields are saturated in the spring and dust during the summer.
Part 1: Runaway Train (May 4)
Part 2: Rising Waters (May 11)
Part 4: Into the Wild (June 1)
Part 5: What Now? (June 8)