Farmers have always grappled with the whims of Mother Nature. But now climate change is changing what they can grow and where they can grow it.
The most unusual thing about Joe Franklin’s 78-acre citrus farm is that it really wasn’t meant to be where it is. “When I first started, people couldn’t believe me when I told them it was grown right here in Georgia,” they said. “They didn’t believe me; ‘Oh no, you can’t grow that here!'”
But Franklin now has 12,000 trees growing fruit in central Georgia that you would normally expect to find hundreds of miles south in Florida: grapefruit, Meyer lemons, tangerines, mangoes.
Correspondent Ben Tracy asked, “So I’m not going to find a Georgia peach anywhere on this land?”
“No, unfortunately not,” Franklin replied. “One of the main reasons I decided to plant them was the fact that it’s so much warmer now than it was 30 years ago, 40 years ago. I know when I grew up, damn it, October, you always had a few frosts. And in November you usually had a frost. That doesn’t happen anymore.
“Did you see that as climate change, or did you just say, ‘There’s something different here’?”
“No, I thought it was climate change,” he replied. “It’s happening. There’s no doubt about it.”
“Many crops — not just in the US, but also in Africa, India — are already seeing the effects of climate change,” said Himanshu Gupta, CEO of San Francisco-based startup Climate Ai. The stakes are high: as the planet warms and climate change fuels increasingly severe droughts and floods, global crop yields could fall by up to 30% by 2050 (according to a report by the Global Center on Adaptation).
Gupta showed Tracy that the cranberries on our Thanksgiving tables will likely need to be grown significantly further north for decades to come. Climate Ai’s platform uses machine learning to identify climate risks for agricultural producers. “That way, you can customize your recommendations for food companies, seed companies, or farmers,” Gupta said.
Dramatic changes are already taking place: there is now coffee from California and fine wines from England.
But while warmer temperatures benefit some plants, they can kill others.
In Georgia, the state’s famous peach trees require significant winter chills to bloom in the spring. Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia, said that winters in the state have warmed an average of more than three and a half degrees since the 18th century, enough to endanger many peach cultivars.
Researchers are scrambling to develop new warmer-weather cultivars to take their place.
Tracy asked, “With continued warming, should we expect plants to move north in any way, things that historically had to go further south?”
“There will be some migration,” Knox replied. “There are some limitations to this: the type of soil you have, whether you have access to irrigation, what you have traditionally grown. Because if you’re a peach producer, you probably aren’t going to suddenly switch to cattle.”
Joe Franklin’s citrus bet is paying off, but he knows that a changing climate is likely to mean more losers than winners.
Tracy asked, “Working this out means it probably won’t work as well for someone further south?”
“Are you thinking about these people?”
“I do. And I feel for them,” Franklin said. “And it’s a gamble. It’s a risk you’re taking, you know?
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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth and Sara Kugel. Publisher: Mike Levine.
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