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The link between climate change and the food on your plate

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A North Carolina banana is small but sweet. About half the size of its Costa Rican counterpart, it grows from a single tree in Chatham County. There it winters inside a building at the Plant in Pittsboro. After the April frost, it sunbathes in the North Carolina heat and humidity until late fall.

"My husband wants to be able to say bananas can be grown in North Carolina," laughs Tami Schwerin, executive director of The Abundance Foundation, which is located at the Plant. The group educates people about local food and renewable energy. It also is exploring local solutions for agriculture in the face of climate change.

Although the Schwerins don't have enough bananas to sell now, the tropical fruit could pop up in North Carolina farmers markets by mid-century. And if global temperatures continue to rise, as they're expected to do, it's not unthinkable that by 2100 local bananas could sit in bins alongside new heat-tolerant varieties of North Carolina apples.

The results of climate change—hellfire summers, intense hurricanes, long droughts punctuated by deluges of biblical proportions—are already altering the way crops pollinate, mature and produce. Over time, they could change what we eat and when we eat it: Local farmers could grow new types of fruits and vegetables that were traditionally raised farther south, and local food could become scarcer in summer and more abundant in late fall.

That's the good news. The bad news was released in a U.S. Department of Agriculture report last month: "Climate change poses unprecedented challenges to U.S. agriculture." The report concluded that while in the short-term farmers should be able to adapt their operations to a changing climate, by mid-century crop yields are projected to decline because of rising temperatures and extremes between rain and drought.

To call it farmaggedon would be overreaching, but unless farmers and consumers rethink how they interact with the planet, there could be less food, and what there is could be expensive.

As State Climatologist Ryan Boyles noted at a recent conference in Pittsboro about farming and climate change: "From an emissions scenario we're in territory not seen in 800,000 years. We are living on a different planet."

Blame hairspray. And gas-guzzling cars without catalytic converters. And coal-fired power plants that lacked today's improved, albeit anemic, environmental controls.

The climate change we're experiencing today is the effect of greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants, such as aerosols, that were released into the air 50 years ago. And the carbon dioxide and methane we're pumping into the atmosphere in 2013 from our cars, power plants, fracking operations—and even our massive livestock farms—will come back to haunt future generations by century's end and later.

In Pittsboro last month, about 150 farmers and a handful of food activists gathered to share ideas about how to counter the effects of extreme weather.

"A key part is the creativity of farmers," Laura Lengnick, a professor of sustainable agriculture and environmental studies at Warren Wilson College in the mountain town of Swannanoa, N.C., told the conference audience. She was among five co-authors of the USDA report, which included input from 68 scientists.

The creative brainstorming that day bore the hallmarks of sustainable agriculture: Adjusting what to plant and when to plant it. Fighting new insects and diseases with integrated pest management instead of pesticides. Raising new breeds of heat-tolerant livestock and plants. Finding new ways to irrigate and manage scarce water resources. Saving seeds and breeding new resilient plants that can withstand such extreme weather.

"I've been increasingly concerned about climate change and I've started thinking about very hot days," said Chatham County farmer Laurie Heise.

A few weeks after the conference I met her at her farm southwest of Pittsboro where starts of arugula, kale and other leafy vegetables percolated in the warmth of a greenhouse. "In the short-term it feels like an opportunity, with slightly longer growing seasons and winter markets. But we're not going to stop getting hotter and hotter."

Global climate models predict the average world temperature will rise by 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 35 years. Ice caps will continue to melt, resulting in sea level rise. Because of warmer temperatures and additional moisture in the atmosphere, overall weather patterns will change over the next century. The global models aren't yet sophisticated enough to accurately predict local conditions that far out, but, as Boyles said, it's time to adapt: "We can't wait that long."

Granted, the state's weather is notoriously erratic. "We get every kind of weather, every kind of extreme," Boyles said.

Yet that unpredictability has increased over the last decade. In the past five years, we've experienced warm weather in early spring, but this climatological bait-and-switch fools fruit trees and berries into budding—only to be killed by a typical April frost. (A local farmer at the Pittsboro conference reported he had strawberries bear fruit in early February.)

In the North Carolina mountains, farmers are putting apples trees on north-facing slopes to delay flowering and make the plants less vulnerable to late spring frosts.

"You're taking a lot more risk," said Heise, who bought Wiseacre Farm in 1987. Last year she planted tomatoes in March; previously, she had not put them in the ground until April 10. Even though the last frost happened on April 12, her tomatoes survived.

Storms are intensifying. Last year, North Carolina recorded the second-highest number of severe weather reports—1,100—in the nation. In 2011, the state ranked first, with 1,700 reports.

Summer temperatures are rising. January through July 2012 was the hottest period in North Carolina in 118 years, with temperatures nearly 3 degrees above average. Last year Raleigh-Durham International Airport scored an all-time record high of 105 degrees three times—on June 29 and 30 and July 8.

Hot days are hard on crops and livestock, but hot nights do the most damage. One farmer noted at the conference that for the past three years, her tomatoes dropped their blooms in July but didn't bear fruit. That's because when temperatures fail to dip below 74 degrees at night, the heat sterilizes the pollen.

Last summer the nighttime temperatures stayed above that magic 74-degree mark 16 times, including on Sept. 5, when the thermometer bottomed out at 75 degrees, breaking the record for high minimum temperature set in 1983, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Extreme weather is the new normal," Boyles said. "North Carolina is sensitive to weather. And North Carolina will get it all."

Byond the barn that houses Heise's Massey Ferguson and John Deere tractors lies a quarter-acre of bare apple trees. This orchard represents climate change limbo, in that the current weather patterns are kind enough to provide enough "chill hours"—a minimum period of cold weather in which a fruit tree will bloom. "But in 2025, who knows?" Heise says.

Thus her dilemma: It's too soon to plant more heat-tolerant varieties, such as those grown in Georgia and Alabama, but an apple tree takes 20 years to mature—so ideally, she would plant now.

"The fruit growers will get the worst of the late spring frosts," said Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farms, which grows vegetables, blueberries and flowers about 20 minutes west of Chapel Hill. "The berries will make it. But apples, pears, peaches won't."

In his 32 years of farming, he said, "I've seen a lot of change. I'm seeing more extreme storms."

His primary concern is the amount of water available for irrigation. He has two ponds that are fed by a major stream on the perimeter of the farm. "The stream has gone dry every year." North Carolina can expect fewer rainy days, but when it does rain, it will be heavy. That results in runoff, erosion, even flooding. Unless farmers can catch and store that water, in ponds, tanks or other underground systems, they can't capitalize on the scarce but vital rainfall.

At the conference, other farmers said they worried about water, especially in Chatham County. Rural subdivisions rely on well water, which can dry up the wells on neighboring farms. Fracking, which uses millions of gallons of water in its operations, also threatens water quality and quantity. It is expected to begin in Chatham County by 2015.

Hitt is adjusting his planting schedule to try to sidestep the worst of the summer heat. Although tomatoes and peppers thrive in hot conditions, they won't set fruit in extreme heat. This is why in July, at what is ostensibly the height of tomato season, there can be a shortage of local tomatoes.

In fact, summers could get leaner for fresh produce. While growing seasons will lengthen, that will occur in the fall. "We see that now at the Carrboro market," Hitt said. "There is plenty of stuff in November through January. It's an extension of the cool season.

"We can adapt. We'll get ahead of it."

It's a sunny, dry, chilly day in early March, perfect for Tandy Jones to work on his farm. For 30 years he's raised cattle on Grassy Fork Farm, 100 acres of pasture in northern Chatham County.

Although Jones' farm is small and sustainable—no more than 100 beef cattle that graze freely, not in feedlots—large livestock operations in particular contribute to global warming and climate change because they emit methane from animal manure. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, even more so than carbon dioxide. While methane digesters—systems that capture and burn methane from lagoons and manure pits—can help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, less than 160 of them operate in the U.S.

"I love cattle, but I recognize it's very resource-intensive," said Jones, 60, whose two daughters are vegetarian. "People need to realize that the industrial meat system is just bad for the climate. We can't do it."

The key to Jones' success is not only cows but also grass: white clover, crabgrass and fescue. Each cow bears a calf every year, and after it's weaned at 7 to 9 months, when it weighs 600 or 700 pounds, he sells it to other farmers. The mother's job is to nurse that calf to weaning, "and to do that she has to eat grass." If she's not getting the right grass or enough of it, the calf won't grow.

So when a drought occurs, as it did in 2007—Chatham County was classified as being in extreme drought—it can economically devastate livestock farmers. "The grass isn't growing, so you feed the cattle hay," Jones said. "And then you have to replace that hay for the winter or you sell the cattle."

Drought also devastates corn and soybean crops, which are used in feedlot operations. As the price of feed increases, so does the price of meat. "When the price of beef goes up, people generally turn to pork and chicken," Jones said. "But those animals are fed exclusively on grain and the prices will rise for them."

High heat and humidity also affect livestock. They eat less, don't reproduce and produce less milk. Jones expects livestock farmers to introduce heat-tolerant breeds, such as Brahmans, which are rare in North Carolina but common in Texas. Cattle with red hide also do better in the heat than those with black hide, yet they command up to 15 percent less at auction because of aggressive marketing for Black Angus beef.

"You match your animals to your micro-environment—and it's changing," Jones said. "There isn't any question about the science. Farmers will be the first to deal with climate change. In my lifetime it will affect my operations."

At the end of The Abundance Foundation conference, farmers placed checkmarks next to strategies they could use to help them adapt. There were many checkmarks next to seed saving.

Doug Jones of Piedmont Biofarms has been saving seeds and breeding varieties of sweet bell peppers for 20 years. He now has 100 breeding lines that produce a pepper that is sweeter and, he says, "full of phytonutrients. It's a superfood."

He also breeds plants for yield, uniformity and hot weather. Like tomatoes, peppers don't set fruit in extreme heat. Jones saves the seeds from the most heat-resistant plants in hopes of breeding new varieties that can thrive in a new climate.

Most vegetables in North Carolina aren't grown from North Carolina seeds, Jones said. "Ninety-five percent of the seeds come from all over world, and because of that those seeds aren't well adapted to our climate."

Despite the worrisome climate news, Lengnick of Warren Wilson College told local farmers at the conference that they can continue to do the vital work of feeding North Carolinians—but they should act now: "Recognize you're farming on a new planet."

This article appeared in print with the headline "The heat is on."

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