Farmers have always faced 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 shouldn’t be where it is. “When I started with this, people couldn’t believe me when I told them it was grown 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 the middle of Georgia that one would normally expect to find hundreds of miles south of Florida: grapefruits, Meyer lemons, tangerines, mangoes.
Correspondent Ben Tracy asked, “So I won’t find a Georgia peach anywhere on this earth?”
“No, I’m not afraid,” Franklin replied. “One of the main reasons I planted them was the fact that it’s so much warmer now than it was 30 years ago, 40 years ago. I know when I was growing up, damn it, in October you had always had a few frosts, and in November you usually had a frost.
“Did you think of it as climate change, or did you just say, ‘Something is different here’?”
“No, I thought it was climate change,” he replied. “It’s happening. There’s no doubt about it.”
“Many cultures – not only in the United States but also in Africa, India – are already experiencing 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 more severe droughts and floods, it is estimated that crop yields around the world could decline by up to 30% by 2050 (according to a report of the Global Center on Adaptation).
Gupta showed Tracy how the cranberries on our Thanksgiving tables will likely have to be grown much farther north for decades to come. Climate Ai’s platform uses machine learning to identify climate risks for agricultural producers. “With this, you can tailor your recommendations to food companies or seed companies or farmers,” Gupta said.
Dramatic changes are already underway: there is now coffee from California and fine wines from England.
But while warmer temperatures can benefit some crops, they can devastate others.
In Georgia, the state’s famous peach trees need significant winter cold to bloom in the spring. Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia, said winters in the state have warmed by an average of more than three and a half degrees since the 1800s, enough to put many varieties of peaches at risk.
Researchers are racing to develop new warmer weather varieties to take their place.
Tracy asked, “As the warming continues, should we expect crops to migrate north somehow, things that must have been further south in the past?”
“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 farmer, you’re probably not going to suddenly switch to cattle.
Joe Franklin’s citrus bet is paying off, but he knows that a changing climate likely means more losers than winners.
Tracy asked, “For it to work here, that probably means it doesn’t work so well for someone further south?”
“Are you thinking of these people?”
“I do. And I feel for them,” Franklin said. “And it’s a gamble. It’s a risk you take, you know? It’s one of those things.”
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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth and Sara Kugel. Publisher: Mike Levine.
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