Farm to ‘we’re all forked’

Cherries, apples and pears may be first to go as extreme weather patterns rewrite spring—and California’s $50 billion agriculture industry

illustration by sarah hansel

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

When the temperature spiked into the 100s for several days in June, farmer Ed George’s younger tomato plants—one of his more important crops—couldn’t take the heat. Their delicate blossoms wilted, and with them the stream of revenue that George was banking on for October.

While crop failures are a routine part of business for farmers, George, who owns and operates The Peach Farm in Winters, says a pattern of destructive weather is limiting his ability to grow food.

“We’re seeing more extremes—more extreme heatwaves, more extreme rains, later frosts,” said George, who also grows peaches, nectarines and figs. “We aren’t having our typical springs anymore.”

George believes he is witnessing the front end of global warming as it begins to take effect on the state’s farmers, who produce some $50 billion in food every year. If that’s the case, the conditions may magnify over time until growing certain crops in certain places will be impossible. In fact, that is exactly what researchers who have closely analyzed climate trends say will happen.

An alarming study published in the journal Agronomy in February predicted that, by 2050, farmers in most of the Central Valley will be unable to reliably grow stone fruits and walnuts—currently major crops in terms of both acreage and value. As early as 2041, the authors found, it might be impossible to consistently grow cherries, apples and pears virtually anywhere in the Central Valley.

At California’s Department of Conservation, chief science adviser Jeff Onsted said it seems likely farmers will need to shift to new crops as the weather warms and conditions become more volatile.

“What worked in the past might not work in the future,” said Onsted, who was not involved in the new research. “You can’t grow the same crops forever in a changing climate.”

A new report on Sacramento County’s agricultural economy showed fluctuations in some of the crops researchers have flagged.

On November 7, Agricultural Commissioner Juli Jensen told the Board of Supervisors that the gross value of all agricultural products in the county reached $495 million last year, 2.2 percent lower than 2016’s record value of $507 million.

The decrease was primarily blamed on Sacramento’s most valuable crop—grapes—experiencing both a lower harvest and value, even though nearly 2,000 more acres were harvested in pursuit of the environmentally-sensitive fruit.

“When you have so much of your value tied up in one crop, as that crop goes so goes your economy,” Jensen told supervisors. “The loss in grapes, that amount, could cover the entire loss.”

Meanwhile, cherries, another fickle fruit, more than doubled in value, thanks to per-acre yields that exploded by 81 percent and were perhaps due to well-timed rains, Jensen said.

It can take time for changes in the climate to be felt in the earth. For instance, Jensen noted, the county’s agricultural economy saw its best year in 2016, California’s fifth straight year of drought, and dipped in 2017, a relatively wet year. While the science calls for what might seem like the end of days for many farmers, not everyone who grows food is unnerved by the predictions.

“I’m not disputing the data, but I’m just not seeing any trends yet,” said Thaddeus Barsotti, who co-owns Capay Organic, a farm about 15 miles north of Winters.

Barsotti said that he has been able to reliably count on having no more frost after March 15. The date has served as a key guideline for row crop planting schedules, and he says it has not changed a day.

“That rule is still for working for us like it always has,” Barsotti said.

Nor is Delta farmer Brett Baker worried by the gloomy crop and climate forecast. Baker grows 30 acres of pears near the town of Courtland. He said the economic market—not especially friendly to pears—is of more concern to him than the climate. Baker said he believes the increasing carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is warming the planet, but he suspects some researchers feel pressured to publish “doomsday scenarios” simply to generate interest in their work.

“They want us to say, ‘Oh, the sky is falling and there’s nothing we can about it!'” he said. “The climate will change, but the vast majority of farmers will be able to find new varieties and new rootstocks. Science will adapt.”

The Agronomy paper warned that, even before changing climate takes certain crop species past their physiological limits, the stress of increasingly erratic weather patterns will draw down crop productivity and yields. In other words, the regional death of industries could be a long and painful one. The researchers predicted that most crop yields will decline by anywhere from 5 to 40 percent.

The crux of the problem, according to the research, is not monster heatwaves or epic floods. It is a subtler impact. Specifically, the wintertime low temperatures that many crop species depend on for proper budding and blooming will not occur in the future, as winters grow generally warmer.

The paper also presented data showing startling upward temperature trends. For instance, California’s summertime mean temperature increased at a rate of 6.4 degrees Fahrenheit per century in the 36-year span between 1975 and 2011. Summertime highs increased at a rate of 6 degrees per century in the same time period, while wintertime lows increased at a rate of about 2 degrees per century. The data also shows that warming rates are accelerating rapidly.

Baker isn’t fazed. Farmers, he said, make adjustments “constantly,” and he thinks growers will be able to evolve with a changing climate. If it truly becomes too difficult to grow pears as an income source, he said he’ll simply find something else to plant.

“No one is going to go hungry in California because we can’t grow enough food,” he said.