Wisconsin farmers cope with the effects of climate change

Central Wisconsin cranberry farm. Photo by Paul Goyette via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The current issue [PDF] of grow, the thrice-yearly magazine from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW-Madison, includes a report from Erik Ness on how changes in weather patterns, likely due to global climate change, have been posing challenges for area farmers.

The growing season in Wisconsin has lengthened by two to three weeks over the last half-century—a big change over a short time. But because spring can be cold and late one year and early the next, some people tend to chalk it up to variability.

Agronomy professor Chris Kucharik BS’92, PhD’97 has no doubt that it’s climate change. Simply put, the earth is like a giant car, and increasing the amount of carbon dioxide is like rolling up the car windows on a sunny day….

Kucharik knows better than most how dense the science can get, but he is adamant that evidence for climate change is clear and overwhelming. In fact, he can even show how it’s helped agricultural productivity in some locations in Wisconsin over the last few decades. It’s not easy to tease out, because crop genetics and management practices have significantly improved over the same period. But trends in precipitation and temperature during the growing season from 1976 to 2006 explain more than a third of the variability in corn and soybean yield trends, he says.

The bad news is that this productivity trend might be hurt by continued warming without adaptive measures. Indeed, for each additional Celsius degree of future warming, corn and soybean yields could potentially decrease. With luck, modest increases in summer precipitation could offset this. Unless, of course, it fails to rain at all.

As the quote above suggests, Ness first considers the effects of difficult weather on major commodity crops like corn and soybeans. He also looks at the impact of this past year’s weather on cranberry growers:

On a sunny day in early June, Ed Grygleski’s cranberries are in bloom and the bees are busy. Two semi loads of hives arrived the previous week and already are settled in. Some of his fellow growers weren’t so lucky, and their bees are still in transit from other states.

Grygleski has never gotten bees in May before, but he’s also never seen a cranberry blossom on May 15th. “If I didn’t have all my bees right now I’d be screaming on the phone,” he says. “This is perfect weather for pollination.” The more blossoms the bees visit, the better the harvest.

Grygleski’s relaxed demeanor belies a crazy year. The mild March awoke his plants, but then it got cold again and stayed cold. He struggled for more than a month to protect the early vines—not always successfully.

“You can tell the color’s different, the vines just look sick,” he says, pulling up to a damaged bed. “The buds don’t grow out.” The bed will recover, but he estimates an 80 to 90 percent loss this year.

Head here for the full story.


One comment

  1. Little Sis

    Heard an interview with a farmer on NPR this morning. She was discussing her concern that bloom/fruit times and migratory patterns are not necessarily changing at the same rate, so birds are missing out on some of their primary sources.

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