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Exploring how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

NC And Climate Change, Part 3: Agriculture Accidentally Prepares

Michael Tomsic

North Carolina’s agriculture industry supplies nearly a fifth of the state’s jobs and revenue, according to the Department of Agriculture. It is also perhaps the industry most threatened by the increasing temperatures and extreme weather associated with climate change, but studies show only a minority of farmers believe in it. Nevertheless, the industry is unintentionally preparing.

Brent Barbee’s family has been farming the same ground in Concord for over 100 years. He grows peaches, strawberries, blueberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, and dozens of other fruits and vegetables. And, he knows something is happening to the climate.

“We’ve had record lows and then record highs and then record lows and then record highs,” says Barbee.

Last year, the heavy rains washed out about a fifth of the farm’s crop. This year the “polar vortex” delayed by three weeks an unseasonably warm spring season.

“There’s only so much you can do,” Barbee says. “Like look down across the cantaloupe field.”

He gestures at sheets of white and black plastic, which stretch across portions of the field. They absorb or reflect the sun to adjust the soil temperature.

“You got black plastic for first, second, and third crop and white for everything after that,” says Barbee. “That [the white] basically cools the ground temperatures so we’re not blistering the plants when we’re setting them. That’s a way we can plan.”

But generally, Barbee will cope with what weather he is given, the same way farmers have throughout history. He will sketch out a general strategy in winter about where and how much of each crop to plant, but that is as long-range as it gets.

He does not believe in climate change—or at least not that it is man-made—nor does he worry about its effects.

“You can’t do anything about it,” he says. “All we can do is pump more water, drink more ice water, and complain about it being hot.”
That is a common view among the state’s farmers.  A recent North Carolina State University study finds only about one in three believe in climate change, far lower than the general populace.

The science points to large impacts on agriculture from more, severe extreme weather—flooding, droughts, freezes, hurricanes—along with higher average temperatures. Ask a climate scientist, though, and the answer sounds a lot like Barbee’s.

“About a year out is the max that the farmers really generally plan for,” says Steve McNulty, director of the Southeast Regional Climate Change Hub for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “So if it’s a whatever degree increase in temperature at some point—100 years, 50 years, or even 10 years from now— it doesn’t really have a whole lot of impact in the short term.”

McNulty says farmers’ disbelief does not matter, since they do not have to plan decades ahead. And they already have the tools—like Barbee’s plastic—to deal with short-term changes.

Unlike farmland, forestry does require decades of forethought. With the state already seeing increased droughts and wildfires, Sean Brogan of North Carolina’s Forest Service works with landowners to prepare for climate change’s effects, while avoiding those two words.

“I really try not to bang people over the head with climate change, because if you really talk to folks about that, you lose them,” Brogan says.

Brogan says prescribed fires and thinning out trees—techniques that prepare landowners for a less friendly climate—help even in the current one. That principal applies across much of agriculture and is one reason the industry is preparing without necessarily knowing it.

Back on Barbee Farm, the crew is perched atop the greenhouse, and dragging up a lightweight, black shade cloth.

“We’re pulling it over the top of the greenhouse to try to block some of the sun, keep it from getting quite as hot inside,” Barbee explains.

Barbee says between that and the fans inside, he can keep ripening tomatoes and cucumbers at the best temperature. Later, he will plant a different variety of tomato—his “hot set,” acclimated to the summer heat.

North Carolina agriculture commissioner Steve Troxler says the agriculture industry always wants tools to combat extreme weather, including hardier seeds.

“We know the effects of enhanced seeds in droughts, no matter if it’s the result of climate change or it’s just a weather pattern,” Troxler says. “So, all of that is already in the works.”

The Department of Agriculture does not have a policy on climate change, but it supports 18 research stations around North Carolina. The agency says the state’s blueberry crop withstood the cold this year, in part because of breeds developed at its Castle Hayne station near Wilmington.

Similarly, programs to expand irrigation will help with future droughts, and could be critical in a warmer climate.

“If we look at the southeast compared with an area like California, they’re running out of water. Well, we have that water,” says University of Florida agriculture professor Keith Ingram. He leads the Southeast Climate Consortium, and contributed heavily to the National Climate Assessment.

Ingram argues the incidental preparation is not enough, and farmers can only mitigate so much. Warmer temperatures could put North Carolina over the optimal point for many products, including dairy, livestock, cotton, peanuts, and some tree crops.

“There are some things that we just can’t adapt to,” Ingram says.

Troxler counters that a warmer climate could support new crops, such as citrus.

But, the cost and danger to North Carolina farmers is that they have prepared for the climate we have, not the one we will get.