Coping with the Climate

For Wisconsin farmers dealing with wild swings in weather, adaptation is the key.

CALS/UW Extension horticulture professor Rebecca Harbut is still trying to assess the overall damage. She believes that three climate-related events combined to stress the bogs. Last fall was warm and dry, then it snapped cold in December. A mild winter made it difficult to establish the ice that growers use to protect their beds. Finally, March temperatures soared to the 80s, followed by a cold and very dry April. Some growers protected with sprinklers, but very dry air lowered the dew point, making frost more likely. The remaining growers flooded their beds but had to keep them submerged as long as three weeks.

There’s more bud damage than usual, and bizarre growth patterns have ensued. “We do not understand what happened,” Harbut says. “Clearly the physiology of the plant got confused.”

The irony here is that cranberry growers are perhaps better prepared for frost events than anyone, and still they got burned. Now Grygleski has a new automated pump system with 13 wireless probes for bed temperature and soil moisture positioned around the farm. The system will save a lot on energy and water as well as improve response time to frost danger.

“Every fruit crop I work with has been absolutely hammered this year,” notes Harbut. One example: the false spring lured Door County cherries into an early bloom, and few blossoms survived the reversal. An estimated 90 to 95 percent of the crop was lost.

Spurred by the challenge, Harbut is now spearheading a research proposal by cranberry researchers across the country who want to figure out how to best adapt to climate change. Industry support is strong. “There has always been a lot of risk in farming,” she says. “The last 10 years it’s gone up exponentially because of the unpredictability of the weather.”

Meanwhile, in London last March —during that unseasonably warm spell in Wisconsin—the independent Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change released a report on how to “sustainably intensify agricultural production while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other negative environmental impacts.” Among its select contributors was just one American, CALS genetics and agronomy professor and former dean, Molly Jahn.

While we’re conditioned to look for major technological breakthroughs, Jahn and her colleagues believe the key to climate change adaptation is information: more of it, integrated better and shared freely. “If we’re going to better manage our agriculture for this twin purpose of our species’ survival and planetary care, we need to have much better ways to keep track of what we’re doing in real time and in multiple dimensions,” Jahn told a Madison radio host in an interview from London. This means everything from space-based sensors to help predict pest expansion to economic intelligence to help ease spikes in food prices and shortages.

Locally, information also is the centerpiece of WICCI’s recommendations for Wisconsin: learn more, and share it with the ag community. One tool the state currently lacks is the kind of detailed local climate monitoring found in such neighboring states as Iowa, Illinois and Michigan.

“We need to arm ourselves with enough information to help adapt to a future state of the climate and resource availability,” says Kucharik.

The politically sensitive nature of climate change doesn’t help. “Part of the ag community feels they are being blamed for climate change,” Kucharik explains. He particularly understands the concern that there may be more environmental regulation.

Unfortunately, he says, the distrust runs so deep that sometimes producers won’t talk to grad students who are trying to understand management decisions. That’s a big problem—but one potentially answered with a historic ideal. “I think this all depends on executing the Wisconsin Idea to its fullest,” says Kucharik.

“Good, bad or indifferent, politics are part of science today,” says Shawn Conley. The challenge, he says, is to be able to talk about it. “Because when it comes down to feeding the 9 billion or so people we’re expected to have on the planet in 30 years, I think U.S. growers are going to be vital in doing that. We have to be. And to do that we have to have frank discussions based on science.

“We don’t always agree, and that’s fine. But we also have to understand that, with the costs now in equipment, inputs and land, the risk has never been greater for a grower to make a lot of money—or to lose the farm.”