Many Farms Suffer, But Some Harvests Benefit as Plants React to Warming World
August 17, 2023
Flats of pansies — a cool-weather-loving little gem of a flower that thrives here mainly in spring — are popping up in garden centers in the Northeast. It must be April.
Garden center managers, along with farmers, landscapers, and plants, are feeling and dealing with the creeping effects of extreme and erratic weather in Rhode Island.
One effect, among many, is that autumn stays warmer much later into the year, allowing a second harvest of cool-weather crops between the end of summer and start of winter. That includes starting a new pansy garden in September, something much more common in, say, the front yards of North Carolina.
For flower lovers, a sadder side of the coin is the increasing scarcity in summer of the blazing blue mophead hydrangeas. A warm spell in mid-winter prods the flower buds to pop out of their dormant state. When the warm days are followed by a quick reversal to cold temperatures, the buds are killed, resulting in no flowers the following summer.
The climate of the upper South is coming our way in the future, and plants in our area are feeling it. Even Rhode Island chickens are dying from the heat on the trip from the farm to the processing facility.
Rebecca Brown, chair of the department of plant science and entomology at the University of Rhode Island, said climate change is having two main effects in Rhode Island: on weather and plants, and the businesses that depend on them.
The first is erratic changes in weather patterns, sometimes sending temperatures and precipitation way off the average, that place great stress on plants, sometimes killing them or at least stunting their growth.
New England has always had variable weather, but the swings are getting much more extreme, Brown said. Dry times are drier; wet times are wetter; warm spells are warmer; cold snaps are colder.
“Temperature fluctuation is very hard on plants,” Brown said. Even a shrub that is hardy to 10 degrees below zero could die if that 10 below lands right after a winter warm snap of 50-60 degrees. The shock to the plant is great.
Plants use temperature and day length to know when to go into dormancy, a state that allows them to resist cold. When warm temperatures in winter cause plants to break dormancy, they are susceptible to a follow-up bout of cold, as happened in March this year, Brown said. The sudden return to cold can kill flower buds, as can a late frost, which happened in May this year.
The second major effect of warmer temperatures across the year is the greater warming of the ocean in summer, which means it stays warm — and keeps the land warmer — much later into the fall, causing much later frost dates.
One outcome of this is a tendency toward more fall and winter rainstorms — in place of snowstorms — near the coast. (Absence of an insulating winter snow blanket causes stress to turf, a major crop in Rhode Island. More on that below.)
The commercial impact of a long fall is “a whole extra harvest,” Brown said, compared to 30 years ago, when the end-of-summer harvest was the end of growing for the year. Now farmers can replant in August, focusing on cool-weather-loving plants such as broccoli, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, and kale. Use of greenhouses and high tunnels for growing make autumn farming even more feasible.
A trend adding to the second harvest push is the growth of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA), where farmers sell directly to customers. With customers right at hand, farmers, naturally, want to supply them for as long as possible throughout the year.
What about the zones?
Home gardeners have at least a passing familiarity with hardiness zones — the wavy horizontal bands of color on the tiny U.S. map on seed packets. The zones were created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture years ago, Brown said. The zones are based on how much cold a dormant plant would need to be able to tolerate to survive in each location.
As the climate changes, the zone designations might become increasingly unreliable. “The zones assume that winter weather follows a consistent pattern of gradually colder and gradually warmer,” Brown said. “But our weather is not doing this anymore. Our weather is a curve with giant jags and spikes. This is hard on plants.”
In addition to roller-coaster temperature changes and swings from drought to deluge, many more effects of erratic and extreme weather are cascading onto plant-based businesses.
For farmers, too much rain is as much a problem, or more, as too little. In periods of heavy rain, farmers might expand their farm ponds, which store water that may be needed for dry times. In drought, they may need to irrigate, which is hugely expensive.
Winters that drop lots of rain instead of snow impacts landscapers, who once used their equipment during the winter for snow plowing. Less snow means less plowing work, so landscapers “will have to find new ways to earn money in the winter,” Brown said.
Golf courses may benefit from allowing people to play much later into the fall, even as they need to contend with suffering grass.
It is a fact that Rhode Island’s climate is getting warmer and wackier. Foremost in people’s minds at the moment are the very hot summer of 2022, the heavy rains of this summer, the mild winters of recent years, and cold springs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Climate Quick Reference Guide offers figures from 1900 to 2020:
Average temperatures have risen 2.8 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, while the winter average has increased 4 degrees.
Rhode Island has experienced the most overall warming of any other state in the continental United States.
From 1950 to 2021, average rainfall has increased 16% and the number of 2-inch extreme precipitation events in a 24-hour period has increased 116%.
Since 1930, sea level has risen more than 9 inches at Newport, higher than the global average.
Offering projected changes from 2042 to 2070, the guide says:
Temperatures, precipitation (especially in winter and spring), and occurrences of large storms are projected to rise.
Droughts are projected to be more intense because higher temperatures increase the rate of soil moisture loss during dry periods.
Sea level is projected to rise 1.4 to 2.3 feet in the next 40 years.
On the front lines
Brock Bouchard works at Kingston Turf Farm, and he has seen problems for that business caused by extreme and erratic weather. Most turf is planted in early fall and harvested one year later; there is also a short springtime planting period. A lack of snow cover means that young plants are not insulated in winter. Come spring, the farm has to “aggressively push the grass to get it out of the dormant state” by use of fertilizers, he said.
A second problem is excessive rain during the multi-step process when the soil is being prepared for new seed. If the farmers get partway through the many steps of harrowing and prep work and then 2 inches of rain falls, the topsoil turns to mud and the process must be started from the beginning. Later in the process “if you get a deluge of rain it can wash the young seeds away,” Bouchard said.
Mild winters of the past five or six years have allowed the company to cut and harvest sod through the winter, but that timing works poorly in terms of employment and customer needs. Normally, much of the staff is laid off after Christmas, so bringing workers back in mid-winter can be awkward. Also, in winter, retail demand for sod is not high.
Mild winters without a hard frost also are good for bugs and weeds, and that’s bad for farmers. A cold winter can kill off some insects and weed pollens, but without it, the pests stay alive and are ready to roar to life in spring. Bouchard said the farm sprays insecticides for grub worms, for instance, every spring, but spraying might need to be heavier if the cold failed to knock them back.
“All extreme conditions affect us all the way down the line,” Bouchard said.
Noah LeClaire-Conway is a co-owner of Morningstar Nurseries in West Kingston, on 19 acres that was once the Kenyon dairy operation. The wholesale business raises ornamental trees and plants of all kinds and sells directly to landscape designers.
LeClaire-Conway and his co-farmers spend a lot of time thinking about hydrangeas, partly because the most popular variety, the familiar mophead blue hydrangea macrophylla, is not doing well. A warm spell in winter followed by a quick return to cold can and will kill flower buds for the season. Other varieties, like hydrangea paniculata, with conical white blooms, and hydrangea serrata, or mountain hydrangea, are much better at making flowers after a winter of seesaw temperatures.
LeClaire-Conway and his colleagues put a lot of effort into persuading customers to step away from the blue riot of hydrangea flowers and try other varieties. But people who want hydrangeas demand the classic blue. Using other varieties of hydrangea is a hard pitch, he said. “Odd plants don’t sell.”
Many of the nursery’s hydrangeas and other types of plants spend the winter under hoop houses, a minimalist type of greenhouse with no climate controls or lighting, but just one or more layers of plastic and wool sheeting to fend off the worse temperature changes.
He said the nursery has suffered through several years of “horrific drought stress” and found relief only with the rains of this summer. Irrigation is done daily during drought times, and drainage is managed with help from a farm pond.
Looking into the future, LeClaire-Conway noted the many adaptations that agriculture has gone through in the past century. One more future lesson he said is that “we are getting to the point where we will not have any blue mophead hydrangeas.”
Animals have feelings, too
Insects. Some of them love the heat, and they are coming for it. Sarah Partyka, owner of The Farmer’s Daughter, a garden and horticulture center in South Kingstown, said the strong winds coming up from the southwest in recent years literally blow warm-climate insects up to Rhode Island. One example, she said, which her staff battled during the hot summer of 2022, are thrips, which love warm weather.
Overall, Partyka said, weather is becoming more extreme: “stronger winds, stronger rain, stronger cold, stronger heat,” all of it creating extra stress for plants and challenges for the horticulture staff. The extreme heat of 2022 required more irrigating and shortened the season for the cutting garden. In a very cool spring, plants may need to be kept indoors longer and greenhouses may need to be heated.
Last summer, business at The Farmer’s Daughter slackened because home gardeners did not want to be outside and had to contend with limits like water bans. Also, she said, “We are concerned about our wells in a dry year; it takes more labor and more water to keep things looking good.”
“Every year we look at the past season and at what we can do differently the next year,” Partyka said. “Weather events seem to be getting more erratic and more extreme.”
It is probably not easy being a chicken at any time, but the extreme hot weather, like last summer, was especially tough for commercially grown chickens, said Adam Baffoni, a farmer at Baffoni’s Poultry Farm in Johnston. Apart from raising its own 20,000 chickens and turkeys, along with some vegetables, Baffoni’s is a regional processor, turning live birds from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire into meat. The operation processes 1,200 to 1,300 birds a day, five days a week, year-round, according to Baffoni.
Getting right to the point, he said, “The heat is killing the birds.” Some farmers who typically bring 500 birds at a time for processing would show up at Baffoni’s in recent summers with only 200 birds. It is especially hard to keep the animals alive during the crating and transport to Baffoni’s. “A farmer that spends months raising birds could lose them in transit,” he said.
The poultry farm tries to keep its own birds out of danger from heat by giving them extra space, spraying them with cooling mist, and running at least four fans in each shed, Baffoni said. The last step raises the farm’s electricity bills.
But quick fluctuations between hot days and cold and wet nights aggravate respiratory conditions like septicemia, especially in the youngest birds.
Baffoni said some chicken farmers have said it is getting harder and harder to justify raising birds commercially as the weather gets worse and mortality climbs.
Michael Sullivan, executive director of the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscaping Association, has spent lots of time around local farms for years, in different roles. When the topic of extreme weather is raised, he won’t even talk about plants before he mentions the suffering of cows in the state’s dairy farms.
In high heat, cows don’t want to eat, their energy goes down, and their productivity dives with it. In temperatures higher than 80 degrees, a cow that usually puts out 100 pounds of milk a day might produce only 40 to 45 pounds, Sullivan said.
Asked what climate change portends for Rhode Island in the future, Sullivan said, “Great costs; less success.”
When unpredictable droughts and periods of heavy rainfall hit farms, farmers need to look at irrigation and drainage. A simple trickle or drip irrigation system can cost about $15,000 an acre, Sullivan said, while a sophisticated spray system can cost up to $400,000 a unit, with a capacity to cover 150 acres. Installing a drainage system can cost $3,000 to $5,000 an acre, assuming, he said, there is a place for the water to drain into.
Sullivan said a high temperature, say, above 70 degrees, can give a kick-start to existing pests that usually stay inactive in lower temperatures. An example is powdery mildew, which he recently found on his squash plants. For a farmer, a fungicide treatment can cost $5,000 to $6,000 an acre.
Adaptation is not new
Many people look with alarm and trepidation at the prospect of a warming climate in Rhode Island. Not so for Jack Partyka, 89, owner of South County Farms in West Kingston and the middle of three generations of a farming family. (He is the father of Sarah Partyka, owner of The Farmer’s Daughter.)
The family farm business was started during the Depression by Jack Partyka’s father, a Polish immigrant who bought the family’s first farm plot in South County in the mid-1930s.
Partyka may be more hopeful about the Ocean State’s farming future for two reasons: he has seen many, many changes in farming conditions, climate, crops, and markets in more than 80 years as a farmer, and he declares that farming has always demanded adaptability. Second, the warming weather in Rhode Island confers some benefits on his farming practices, including the ability to work the farm year-round in the absence of the heavy snows and extreme cold.
Partyka said when he was attending URI in the 1950s, he would visit Florida and he considered going there to farm in the winters. Now, he said, Florida climate — “or at least the Carolinas” — has come to Rhode Island.
“We had weather extremes” decades ago, Partyka said. He remembers a frost that killed potato plants in June when he was a kid, and he recalls having to put in an irrigation system for the first time after a dry spell in 1957.
“You had extremes and you had to keep adjusting every year,” he said. “It is part of working with Mother Nature.”
Partyka now grows and sells vegetables, turf, and Christmas trees, but that was nothing like the crop lineup in the 1930s, when his father started the family business.
South County has many stretches of flat, non-rocky soil where many farmers grew potatoes in the early 1900s. He said the early potato varieties, for table use, were replaced in the 1950s and ’60s by potatoes that worked well for potato chips. “Chip” potatoes were easier to supply because grading standards were looser and they didn’t need to be bagged. Eventually, that business began to tail off because chip processors were demanding lower and lower prices, squeezing farmers’ earnings.
In the 1950s, Partyka began raising Christmas trees, which he continues to do. For 33 years, up to 2022, the farm raised pick-your-own strawberries on as many as 50 acres at the height of production. Partyka shut down the strawberry crop after last year because deer were devouring the strawberries. That crop must be rotated among fields, and it is too expensive to try to fence in multiple fields, Partyka said.
As the potato crop began to fade into history decades ago, South County farmers moved into turf, a profitable crop that also requires flat and non-rocky soil. Partyka grows and sells turf, but he speaks of it with a hint of distaste, declaring “the land should be producing food.” He said every turf harvest strips away a quarter-inch to a half-inch of mineral soils that were laid down thousands of years ago. Also, Partyka said turf farming requires irrigation, which requires the burning of fossil fuels.
But turf farming is a money-maker, Partyka said, especially since Rhode Island is right between the population centers of New York and Boston. He said the pandemic was a boon to turf farming as well-to-do city dwellers began moving into New England and planting houses and lawns.
Overall, he feels fortunate with the present farming and weather conditions. He can work through the winter at pruning Christmas trees and other tasks. Customers are able to come to the tree farm in December without fear of freezing during a few minutes outdoors.
Ken Ayars, chief of the Division of Agriculture for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, noted local farming has suffered less severe weather problems this year than all of its New England neighbors and it is holding its own overall. Speaking of use of cover crops, he offered a comment that could be understood much more broadly: “Whatever can be done to insulate ourselves from weather is part of the constant evolution of agriculture.”