How Climate Change Affects Fall Crops In North Carolina

Nov 25, 2019

When fall arrived this year, it didn't make its entrance with crispy air and cooling temperatures. In fact, the temperature around here was downright summer-like, with some days 10 degrees higher than the average. Plus, there was very little rain for a while. 

These are examples of the erratic and extreme weather we’re seeing that links to climate change. 

And when it comes to the fall harvest, area farmers are facing new challenges — and short-term benefits — as a result. 

Take Apple and Green City Farm, for example. It’s a one-acre urban farm, flanked by homes and a community tavern, just on the outskirts of downtown Winston-Salem. 

The yield has been high lately, and warmer than usual temperatures into the fall played a part. On a crisp November morning, owner Sam Shapiro was about to dig up thousands of pounds of sweet potatoes — much later than usual.

“Part of that warming environment, in a weird way, paid off this year in a marketable standpoint because I’ve been able to trickle this harvest longer, watching the weather,” Shapiro says. “Technically I was harvesting eggplants and tomatoes and hot peppers this morning.”

The high temps actually extended the growing season. Good for business, sure. But the accompanying drought-like conditions were not helpful.

“We had a lot more watering requirements,” says Shapiro. “So I can imagine if that persisted and we went onto some type of water restrictions where that was managed that would probably be a deal-breaker in a way.”

Credit EDDIE GARCIA / WFDD

Farmers expect weather variance, but there have been indicators that the swings are getting more extreme and more consistent. And that could come with long-term effects.

Mark Weathington is the Director of the JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State University. He says that if the heat continues late into a season, then instantly swings to cold, cool-season plants don’t have time to really get established.

Plants will adapt the best that they can, but when the weather is erratic it can be tough.

“If we have these abrupt changes, like going from 70 degrees on Christmas day, then dropping down to 20 degrees, that can really damage a lot of plants,” says Weathington. “[These are] plants that would be fine at 20 degrees, and 15 degrees, and lower, but that rapid shift doesn’t give the plant time to adjust.”

These sudden shifts in weather are also of great concern to Kathie Dello, the state climatologist.

"North Carolina is changing rapidly,” she says. “And we’ve seen a number of extreme events over the past few years: flooding, hurricanes, extreme heat. And we know that climate change is here, and it’s happening to us now."

Dello says we’re already seeing some effects. Things like more extreme events, days of heavy precipitation, and large floods. Last year was the wettest year on record for North Carolina. But this year's drier conditions and heat are also a big concern. She says that heatwaves are outpacing past trends in terms of duration and intensity and frequency and that North Carolinians can expect more of this in the future. 

And it’s not just the daytime heat that’s a concern.

“But where we’re really seeing the change in North Carolina is our nighttime temperatures,” says Dello. “They’re outpacing the change in daytime temperatures by almost three times. And hot nights really matter. And it also has a number of impacts on our crops which do need a certain number of cool temperatures to actually thrive.”

Shoppers bundled in winter coats make their way through a busy Cobblestone Farmers Market on a chilly morning. Brightly colored spicy peppers, leafy greens, and herbs fill the stands. Like Sam Shapiro, many of the folks here selling produce had a long and plentiful growing season. 

Jay Dunbar is the manager of River Ridge Organics, a berry farm in Independence Virginia. 

“I can definitely say that some of the weather conditions were good, optimal for growing,” Dunbar says. “I can also say that the year before was equally as bad."

But inconsistencies pose challenges. 

“The big thing that I’ve noticed is less predictability in terms of how hot it’s going to get, when it’s going to rain, and what the temperature fluctuation is going to be,” says Dunbar.

For Dunbar and others like him, this is the new normal. But like plants, farmers are resilient and will keep doing their best to adapt to these unpredictable conditions, while keeping a hopeful eye on a future where climate change is slowed down or stopped.

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