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Northeast farmers weigh warm climate, drenched fields

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Jeff Tyson

Farmers in the Northeast are adopting production habits tailored to longer, warming climate conditions, but they may face spring planting whiplash as they confront fields increasingly saturated with rain, according to a new Cornell-led paper in the journal Climatic Change, November 2017.

Climate change in the Northeast could present two faces. “Climate change can easily intensify agricultural susceptibility, but also present fresh, surprising opportunities,” said David Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology and senior author of the paper.

For the past two decades, the Northeast has been getting warmer for longer periods of time. Concurrently, the region has seen a 71 percent increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events – more than any other region in the United States, according to the paper. Heavy rainfall, for example, increases the likelihood of foliar diseases, such as potato and tomato late blight, and plant root fungal problems that stress carrots and other root vegetables.

Precipitation data collected from Cornell’s Northeast Regional Climate Center indicate that summer rainfall averaged 133 percent (2013), 111 percent (2014), 118 percent (2015) and 92 percent (2016) of normal conditions – which uses the 1981-2010 average as a baseline – throughout the region.

Wolfe and his colleagues note that the frost-free period has been getting longer, but excessive rainfall in either spring or fall can offset this potential benefit. “Heavy rains not only cause disease problems, but can prevent farmers from having access to the fields to plant in spring or to harvest in fall,” said Wolfe.

While warmer temperatures expand the agricultural production season, climate change warms the oceans and creates a more energetic atmosphere. This, in turn, brings more rainfall, said Art DeGaetano, professor of climatology and director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center.

For several years, the researchers examined the rainfall three weeks prior to the last frost. “What you see through time [is], the date of the last frost in the spring gets earlier and earlier. But that pushes you against the time when rainfall increases the most,” said DeGaetano.

For fresh market vegetable growers, profit is based on reaching market early, when the crop’s value is greatest. Delayed planting due to wet spring soils can have negative financial effects. Farmers can try planting a field even when it is wet, but using heavy farm equipment compacts soil and decreases its ability to hold water, diminishing yield potential.

Rainfall extremes are projected to continue through the current century, the researchers said.

The paper, “Unique Challenges and Opportunities for Northeastern U.S. Crop Production in a Changing Climate,” is part of a special issue of the journal Climatic Change, titled “Vulnerability Assessment of U.S. Agriculture and Forests developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Climate Hubs.” Co-authors are Gregory M. Peck, assistant professor of horticulture; Michael Hoffmann, executive director, Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions; Mary Carey, Lewis Ziska and David Hollinger, U.S. Department of Agriculture; John Lea-Cox, University of Maryland; and Armen Kemanian, Pennsylvania State University.

Wolfe, DeGaetano, Hoffmann and Peck are faculty fellows at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.


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Blaine Friedlander