Farmers feel the impact of change

Special Report: Climate Change in 2019

By Mark Reynolds
Posted 6/12/19

It seems barely a day goes by without the national media commenting on climate change – does it exist, is it caused by man and is it going to flood lower Manhattan and Miami and will we …

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Farmers feel the impact of change

Special Report: Climate Change in 2019


It seems barely a day goes by without the national media commenting on climate change – does it exist, is it caused by man and is it going to flood lower Manhattan and Miami and will we completely lose the Republic of the Maldives, an archipelago that is 115 sq/mi with a population of nearly 310,000 located in the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean, due to rising sea levels. Most scientists say climate change is a real phenomenon and point out that man has contributed to the problem. They are collectively urging that corrective action be taken to halt and reverse the course that we are on.

In recent months the Southern Ulster Times spoke to a number of farmers in our readership area to get their take on this issue and to see it from their perspective.

Chip Kent is the sixth generation that has been farming in Milton. Next year their farm, Locust Grove, will celebrate their 200th anniversary. They grow strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, currents, peaches, plums along with 80 varieties of apples, pears and quinces.

In recent years Kent’s 100 acre farm was hit by a freak hale storm, followed by a quick freeze on a Valentine’s Day evening where the temperature dropped 60 degrees to a low of -19 F. Both occurrences significantly damaged crops.

In his lifetime Kent said, “It seems like the weather is just more severe when we have it. That said, this year seems about as normal as it can get. For us right now this is perfect spring weather and has held things off to the optimal time. The weather going forward looks very normal as far as being in the 50s and 60s.”

Kent remembers winters with more snow, “but then again you go through a cycle and what does that mean. Is it something that is happening because of climate change or is it a 2, 5, 10 or 100 year cycle that we’re going through? For us it’s just, about impossible to figure this stuff out. Its very, very confusing. Is there climate change, sure, did we cause it, probably, maybe, I think so. The older we get the less we know [and] are we so sure of what we know?”

Kent constantly reviews old notes and data on weather, “to use it as a barometer to see where we’re at and to give it our best guess.”

Kim Osborn, along with her husband Stephen, run Stoutridge Vineyard. They planted their first vines in 2001, which now cover 7 acres. She said recent severe storms have definitely impacted them.

“What climate change means for us is we’re getting a lot more water, which is good on one side but not when you’re growing fruit. You can have too little sugar in all fruit because either you don’t have enough sun and the inverse of that is too many cloudy days, or just before you harvest you get too much rain and it dilutes the sugar in the fruit. It also causes the fruit to split, which increases the risk of disease.”

Osborn said in the last few years the total yield of grapes has dropped significantly because of bad weather just before the October harvest.

“Grapes don’t like water just before you harvest them,” she said. “The worst case scenario is [if] you get a lot of water, the grapes swell to the point where they break [open] and then you have damaged fruit and you can get sour rot, fungus or any number of things that destroys their ability to be edible...We’ve had inches of rain in a day, we’ve had mega-storms.” She calls the breaking open “explosions” that result in sugar dripping out of the fruit, “and that attracts bugs, that attracts fungus and all kinds of nasty pests and it’s unusable.”

Osborn has seen late frosts in spring, earlier frosts in the fall, unusual amounts of rainfall during the season and even much colder winter temperatures than usual.

“It’s challenging for all of us,” she said. “I don’t think anybody is debating that the climate is changing; I think people are debating what’s causing it, but if you’re a farmer it doesn’t matter what’s causing it, it’s changing and you have to adapt.”

Fred DeMaio, of Minard Farms in Clintondale, purchases apples from growers in the Hudson Valley to make cider. He speaks often with many of these growers.

“I’m not a big proponent of climate change [but] I’ve seen varietal changes in the valley over the years,” he said. “Some apples get harvested earlier than others, but overall I haven’t seen a huge change in the way that the Hudson Valley weather affects the apple crop. Most of the farmers I know think climate change is a lot of bull.”

DeMaio said it is difficult to reach definitive conclusions.

“I don’t know if the rainy season last year was any indication of a climate change, but it certainly was an aberration that wasn’t favorable to what we do,” he said. “When it’s wet our cider tends to be a little less sweet but we’re still blending...and we’re buying varieties from outside guys and checking the sugar before they even come in. We’re able to mitigate a year like last year pretty good.”

Apple farmer Dave DuBois purchased and opened DuBois Farms in 2002. He has 25 acres planted in a combination of apples, peaches, plums, nectarines and strawberries. He believes climate change is real, “because a lot of the diseases that get killed off by very cold weather are creeping their way farther north.” He noted that fire-blight is becoming a problem in New England, “It’s a bacteria that gets into the tree and it actually just kills it.” DuBois sprays with an organic copper substance to destroy this bacteria.

DuBois has been hit by hale three times and was “frozen-out” twice.

“We had one year where we had nothing and another year with about 30% of a crop and the hale storms caused 80 to 90% damage but we’re still able to sell them for pick-your-owns or for juicing because they just had a mark on them but not good for wholesale.”

DuBois said he cannot scientifically prove that climate change is occurring, “but I believe I can see it getting warmer every year; even a few degrees makes a difference.”

Doug Glorie has owned Glorie farms since the 1970s.

“I do believe the climate is changing [but] I could not prove it to you what is happening here,” he said. “I don’t have a statistical measurement of the high and low over the last 20 years.”

Glorie said the recent storms that have hit the area are more violent and the bad times seem worse than before, “Now is that climotologically driven? I don’t know, could be.”

Steve Clarke’s family has been apple farming in Marlboro for 200 years.

“What we’re seeing is higher summertime temperatures, more 100 degree days and warmer and later falls,” he said.

Clarke remembers when he was younger seeing touches of frost in late September or early October followed by Indian Summer, “and certainly by the 10th of November you were seeing a lot of cold nights and quite occasionally there would be ice on the ponds at Thanksgiving. It’s very rare to see ice now.” He said besides warmer summers they are now wetter.

Clarke said warmer and wetter weather in the Northeast is happening, particularly in the fall.

“You’re going to have less winter, with still some record cold nights, but less snow,” he said. “It’s a very subtle impact.”

Dan Donahue is a Tree Fruit Specialist on apples, apricots, peaches, pears and plums with Cornell Cooperative Extension. He said the climate is always changing and is never static but, “certainly it seems like we’re seeing warmer conditions at times of the year when we don’t expect it.” He noted that in the “apple world” there is inherently a lot of variability, pointing out that in a given two week period wide swings can be seen in either direction.

Donahue said his organization has a program to help farmers adapt to changing environmental conditions. He said there are also computer models to predict fruit tree diseases that are based on weather forecasts.

Laura McDermott, who is a Small Fruit and Vegetable Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, covers 17 counties from Canada to New Jersey. She said climate change, “is indisputable given all the statistics that we have, in the amount of rainfall and the temperature for the last 100 years.”

McDermott said these two factors were fairly consistent until about 30 years ago when the data began to show significant average increases. She cautioned about reporting a singular event as definitive proof of climate change.

“We like to talk about climate change over many decades and looking at trends in things that are happening,” she said, “It’s important to talk about the trends and that change is creating unstable weather systems that result in these dramatic and very economically devastating issues for farmers,” she said.

McDermott said data shows that we are losing farms in Ulster County.

“We are facing increasing challenges that we are not able to recoup investment from the price of the product that we are growing,” she said. “Climate change is certainly a part of it, but it’s [also] labor and it’s tariffs and regulations.”


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