Discussions about global warming often concern what could happen in the future, but West Michigan fruit growers are adapting to changes in the climate that have already been happening for decades.
Jeff VanderWerff, a fourth-generation grower at Sparta-based VanderWerff Farms LLC, said he and his brother, Joe VanderWerff, spend more time than they care to admit watching changing climate patterns.
“My brother and I both are really big into some of the meteorological blogs, climate blogs, and weather services with independent meteorologists and independent climatologists that are constantly looking at trend patterns, overall weather patterns, things like that,” VanderWerff told MiBiz. “I think today’s farmers are watching the weather more than they ever have, number one. But number two, they’ve got a lot more access to it.”
Throughout the past decade, scientists have been predicting an increase in the frequency and severity of adverse weather events as a result of climate change. A report released by the U.S. National Climate Assessment last year predicts droughts, temperature extremes and plagues of insect pests increasingly will cripple farming worldwide.
“Climate change has the potential to have a tremendous impact,” said Laura Campbell, manager of the agricultural ecology department at Michigan Farm Bureau, noting that the changes have forced farmers “to develop new timing, new techniques, new crop protection tools for invasive pests that we’ve never had to deal with before.”
The spotted winged drosophila (SWD) is just one example of a pest that recently has plagued the West Michigan region. A small vinegar or “fruit” fly with the potential to damage many crops, the SWD was first found in Michigan in 2010.
Unlike most other vinegar flies that require damaged fruit to attack, SWD causes damage when female flies cut a slit and lay eggs in healthy cherries, grapes and other tree fruits, with a preference for softer-fleshed fruit.
“Our blueberries and other soft fruits that we are major producers of in the country are very susceptible to this,” Campbell said. “Those pests, they’re really difficult to control.”
Sprays that might help with pest control often are dangerous to human health and heavily regulated by state and federal rules, she added.
Another changing factor that is frequently keeping West Michigan growers up at night is rainfall extremes, when too much and too little falls in one season or at inopportune times for harvest or fruit development.
“Lately, in the past decade or so, we tend to get a time during the summer when we have anywhere between four or five weeks where we get very little to no rain,” said Nick Schweitzer, a fifth-generation grower at Sparta-based Schweitzer Orchards. “Usually it seems to be at a critical time when the apples are sizing, and if the tree doesn’t get water, it slows down or shuts down that growth of the fruit.”
To mitigate the changing seasonal precipitation patterns, Schweitzer and other growers have been installing costly irrigation systems and changing the number of apple trees they plant per acre.
“We went with a drip (irrigation) system. It just tends to be the most efficient way,” Schweitzer said of the systems, which are commonly used for vine-based crops, like grapes. “You’re putting it right in the root zones. There are less issues with evaporation. You’re not wasting as much water as an overhead system.”
Overhead irrigation systems also run the risk of washing away pest-control sprays, said Schweitzer.
At the same time, many growers also are making significant investments in drainage systems, said Marilyn Thelen, associate director of the Agriculture and Agribusiness Institute at the Michigan State University Extension.
“In about 2012 when we had the drought, I started seeing a change in the installation of both tile drainage and irrigation,” Thelen told MiBiz. “That seems counterintuitive until you look at what the climate patterns have done. You may get a really, really wet spring and then a dry growing season, and so both of those tools are tools that can help in that year.”
Corn takes off
One Midwest crop that may have benefitted from the changing climate is corn, a crop that is both highly productive and strongly influenced by temperature.
Climate change has brought “peculiarly pleasant weather” and higher corn yields in Michigan and 11 other states in the region, according to a recent report on historical maize yields across the U.S. “corn belt” that was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Midwest states are harvesting at least five times more corn than they did 100 years ago, according to the report. Although this trend is often attributed to continued improvements in genetics and crop production technologies, the report identifies significant contributions from changing weather patterns during the growing season.
The research cited in the report estimates that 28 percent of the increase in crop yield since 1981 is a result of overall warmer conditions — while damaging hot temperatures have moderated, resulting in fewer “killing degree days” — and from adjustments in crop timing toward earlier planting and varieties that take longer to mature.
Soybean production areas have expanded farther north as well, according to VanderWerff, who grows approximately 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans and apples.
“There are areas of Northern Michigan that hadn’t been farmed in 80 years that are now being brought back into production because the climate allows it,” he said.
The challenges ahead
Still, even seemingly beneficial adaptations to climate change could manifest as danger lurking underground, according to experts. In the major drought of 2012, corn yields plummeted by 26 percent, perhaps because such densely planted crops are even more vulnerable to heat stress and water loss.
Furthermore, as more growers adapt and lean on irrigation systems, they could face conflicts over water use, according to Campbell.
“Whether you think of it in the context of climate change or even just what we experience right now, in a lot of places around the country, there is just not enough water to go around for everything that people want to do,” she said.
For now, VanderWerff — who considers himself “a bit of a climate skeptic” as far as the reasons for climate change — is using the technology and tools available to him to plan for every eventuality.
“We don’t just stick our finger up in the air anymore wonder if it’s going to be a hot summer,” he said. “We are putting thousands of points of data into a computer and running statistical models and coming up with the most probable scenario that we’re going to find ourselves in, and then forming a game plan around that.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that Nick Schweitzer is with Schweitzer Orchards. A previous version incorrectly stated he was with J. Schweitzer Ridge Farms LLC, which is operated by another family member.
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