US Northeast to see silver lining in climate change

While increased rain could lead to proliferating pests and disease in the region, warmer temperatures could support new crops such as tomatoes, peaches and wine grapes, researchers found.

Coming decades will see climate change-related challenges and opportunities for agricultural producers in the US Northeast, according to a recent Cornell University white paper.

Written by a group of authors led by plant and soil ecology professor David Wolfe, the  analysis incorporates statistics on factors including crop disasters, apple frost and the expansion of pests and weeds.

It concludes that in the period through 2040, the Northeast’s specialty crop-focused agricultural economy faces the repercussions of changing rainfall patterns, increased summer heat stress and shorter winters with higher temperatures. The effects of these are not all bad, the paper said.

“Among the opportunities are double-cropping and new crop options that may come with warmer temperatures and a longer frost-free period,” its authors noted, suggesting that farmers further up the Atlantic coast may follow counterparts in the southern portions of the Northeast in planting winter wheat or barley followed by soybeans. “However, prolonged periods of spring rains in recent years have delayed planting and offset the potentially beneficial longer frost-free period.”

From beans to barrels 

The region examined derives most of its agricultural income from apples, corn, snap beans and feedstock crops supporting the regional livestock industry. New crops potentially made viable in the Northeast by expected changes in climate, according to the paper, include Merlot and Zinfandel red wine grapes, watermelon, tomatoes, peaches and plums.

The Northeast leads the US in incidence of extreme precipitation events, which have increased by 71 percent since the mid-1990s. The paper explains that such high levels of rainfall erode soil, reduce yields and facilitate the spread of disease. Because delays in planting on wet soil can also impact farmers by effectively shortening their growing season, Cornell suggests farmers invest in improving drainage and irrigation systems as part of their efforts to adapt to changing weather patterns.

“Farming success in the NE will require technologies that integrate site-specific monitoring with decision tools to adapt to rapid changes in environmental conditions,” the paper argued. “Because the NE is likely to be vulnerable to increased frequency of both too much and too little water, farmers are faced with complex decisions regarding whether they should adapt by investing in irrigation equipment, a drainage system, or both, and when.”David Nicola, founder of Blackdirt Capital, a private equity firm focused on what it sees as undervalued farmland markets of the Eastern US, told Agri Investor that the issues raised in the paper are a topic of discussion for some, but not all, actors in the relevant markets.

Nicola said he is often asked why Blackdirt is largely focused on acquiring farmland in the US Southeast, when the Northeast offers “protection from climate change” – a position he characterized as reflecting what he called a “Northern bias” he often encounters.

“It’s still up in the air, figuring out how you are protected from climate change, but as this article points out, there are certainly risks affiliated with it as well,” Nicola said. “A sophisticated investor in agriculture, that also has an understanding of what’s going on with climate and the environment, is going to bring this up.”