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Climate Change to the Midwestern Farmer by Barnard Blogger Sara Lytle

The muggy summer evenings of Canfield, Ohio, were filled with countless lightning bugs in 2002. There were so many that I would run out of numbers that I knew as a six-year-old. This summer as I sat out on a porch swing fifteen years later, I made myself dizzy squinting to see if that one sparkle was indeed a rare sighting of a lightning bug. The once magical display in the corn fields surrounding my home had dwindled to none in less than two decades. Research generally attributes this decline to the loss of firefly habitat from development and excess artificial lighting at night. To me, it was an alarming signal that consequences of unsustainable human development could affect this inland Midwestern farm town too.

Agriculture has been the backbone of most Midwestern states and provides crop exports both nationally and internationally. However, a deficit in production can destroy entire communities’ economies. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History states thatclimate models suggest a seven to twelve-degree increase in temperature (F) in the winter and a six to fourteen-degree (F) increase in the summer for northeastern Ohio. The warming temperatures that accompany climate change will bring wetter springs and falls, with higher potential for drought during the summer growing season.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview David Hull, a third generation farmer at White House Fruit Farm, a two-hundred acre farm in Canfield, about his agricultural practices and his adaptation strategies for a changing climate (see http://www.whitehousefruitfarm.com)  Hull has been a family friend for decades and introduced me to the challenges facing agriculture in the northeastern Ohio region. He helped me understand the risks associated with increased temperatures and precipitation for northeastern Ohio agriculture. Northeastern Ohio already has one of the wettest climates in the United States. Thus, Hull has to take constant preventative measures to prevent moisture buildup in his apple orchards, the farm’s most famous crop. Warmer temperatures lead to higher amounts of moisture in the air that can get trapped under leaves and branches. In addition to using fungicides and herbicides, Hull must prune constantly to allow for maximum sun exposure to prevent diseases that enjoy living in dark and moist environments.

As a result of the naturally high precipitation rate, the water table is already relatively close to the surface. This makes the area prone to soil saturation and flooding that can wipe out entire parts of the apple orchard and other fruit trees. This occurs when roots can no longer act as anchors in the soil. According to Hull, too much water is actually worse than too little water because removing the water is such a complicated and inefficient process. While a large corporate agriculture firm may be able to cope with more frequent flooded fields plot destructions, will local Ohioan farmers be able to do the same? Climate change poses a real risk to the local farmers that sustain the Midwest economies and impacts the food security and livelihoods of the people who depend on them.


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11 Responses

  1. I found your introduction and personal anecdote of of lightening bugs fascinating. I live on Long Island and I have perceived a decrease in lightning bug population. I wonder if the decrease in population is due to the loss of firefly habitat from development and excess artificial lighting at night. It’s so sad to think that such beautiful animals that we grew up to know and love may eventually not exist on this planet.

  2. Your firsthand account of the climate change experience in the Midwest is fascinating. The insights from David Hull about too much water versus too little water are interesting as many people believe that drought is a greater issue for farmers. In this case climate change is directly affecting the livelihood of these Midwestern farmers which are a large part of the backbone of the economy. Do you think that if the economic impact in large enough that the U.S. government will create more legislation in relation to climate change? The Midwest’s economy is constantly talked about in the political sphere. The issues in Ohio are directly contrasted with the drought issues further West in places like California. Drought and too much rain both stem from climate change and have incredibly negative impacts on the structure of a state and how it runs.

    1. Thanks for your comment Lauren. Agriculture is definitely being challenged by climate change. It’s interesting to see how the farming world will adapt.

  3. Similar to Maggie’s previous comment, I too am from Long Island and have definitely noticed a decrease in the prevalence of lightning bugs. The exact reasons for which I had not given too much thought to up until reading your entry, Sara. The effects of development and land-use are wide spanning and indeed cause changes to varying species and day-to-day experiences, as noted in your anecdote about lightning bugs. I wonder what attempts are being made to protect this species, if any at all.

  4. I appreciate how you use a personal example; I can tell that the lightning bugs almost symbolize your childhood! Also, what an incredible opportunity to be able to speak directly with a farmer about responses to climate change. As someone from California, I usually assume droughts will be the main issue when it comes to changes in the hydrologic system. In this sense, I think it is great that you are bringing up the opposite side; flooding can be just as damaging as drought.

  5. It was interesting to get more information on this topic. Climate change’s impact on agriculture is really important subject to learn about. I think your analysis about rainfall is extremely interesting as climate change is still somewhat seen today as just the warming of the planet and doesn’t always encapsulate all the environmental changes that occur.

  6. I loved your use of a personal anecdote to show the small scale effects of climate change. I think it is very important for people around the world to take into account minor changes in their lives and question whether it could be associated with climate change. I know I noticed the depletion of lightening bugs where I live and I actually discussed it with my father. I just hope other people take time to do the same. Sara, you made me realize we need to talk about the little changes as well as the big more noticeable changes to truly demonstrate the effects of climate change on the planet. Thank you!

  7. Thanks for sharing, Sara! I’m curious about fruit production in Ohio — is that the common crop, or is much of the region devoted to other staples like corn and soy or dairy? If fruit production is common, why is that? Have farmers begun switching to hardier crops to protect against climate change, or is the high value of fruit a driving consideration?

  8. It’s incredible to hear about climate change actually making an area wetter. In my conception of Climate change, I always have this idea that the earth begins to warm and dry up.Of course, this is not the case. As your blog very appropriately describe, climate change just stands to increase the natural weather conditions exponentially. This means that the wet places get wetter and the dry places get drier. It ‘s also interesting to think about the reverse of the right of farming p[ratcies. I certainly haven’t considered the idea that wet soil can actually be worse for growing crops. I wonder if a shift in the type of plants that are grown could possibly act as a solution to the increasingly warm and wet climate?

  9. This was a great read as a fellow Midwesterner! Really good to expose this, as many people dismiss the Midwest as ‘safe’ from the effects of sea level rise and flooding because it’s so far inland. However, your article makes it clear that there are still severe effects coming in the future in a business as usual scenario. Would this have as big of an effect to water-stress-resistant staple crops like corn, or another important plant like soybeans? And, does the decrease in the lightning bug population perhaps have bigger effects, such as on the population of crows?

  10. David Hull’s experience on White House Fruit Farm is a sobering account. It is becoming harder and more demanding to manage the circumstances of growing apples and other produce that we enjoy daily. With more extreme seasons, there is a shrinking margin of error for the range of moisture that farmers must maintain for their crops. These experiences must be shared so as to move policymakers to act.

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