Global Warming Seen as Threat to Garden State’s Cranberry Farms

Joe Tyrrell | January 26, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Researchers have tough time getting local growers to talk about risk

A sense of urgency pervaded the meeting rooms at the Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, where scientists, business executives, and former governors agreed that global warming poses pressing problems for New Jersey: rising tides, violent storms, health risks, and tougher growing conditions for some signature crops.

If the world continues its high-polluting ways, the latest projections suggest some crops suited to current conditions could be under stress sooner rather than later. And if there is one New Jersey crop that is especially vulnerable, it is the cranberry.

One of only three fruits recognized as North American natives — along with blueberries and Concord grapes — cranberries were among the first foodstuffs introduced to European settlers by Native Americans. New Jersey became a center of production in the 19th century, though it now trails Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

But under the trend of high emissions of greenhouse gases, New Jersey’s cranberry crop “would be at risk by the middle of the 21st century,” said Anthony Broccoli, director of the Rutgers Climate & Environmental Change Initiative.

By the 2050s, the latest data suggests New Jersey could see an average temperature rise of 3 degrees to 5 degrees Farenheit and a 10 percent increase in annual precipitation, which will result in more weeds and insect pests, according to Robin Leichenko, a professor of economic geography who is also part of the multidisciplinary initiative.

The current “unique conditions” of South Jersey represent the southernmost extent of commercial production of cranberries in North America. That could mean “a whole sector at risk,” as New Jersey’s weather evolves toward conditions like those in present-day South Carolina, Leichenko said.

The threat to cranberries was just one note in a chorus of potential problems that require long-range planning, according to speakers at the conference held late last year. A constant theme was the inability of researchers to get their findings accepted by the public and policymakers while there is a chance to plan ahead.

With scarcely four dozen growers and 3,100 acres in bogs in Burlington, Atlantic, and Ocean counties, it would almost be possible to prevent a conference on global warming at every cranberry farm in the state. But the research findings have not made it much past New Brunswick.

“I don’t think our growers have given too much thought about it,” said Al Murray, state assistant secretary of agriculture. “I don’t see that as a major discussion right now.”

Part of that is demographics, said Murray, who serves on the state cranberry and blueberry councils. With an average age of 56, New Jersey farmers “look at climate change as something they won’t have to deal with in their lifetimes,” he said.

Climate change is not a hot topic, agreed Steven Lee IV of Chatsworth, the fifth generation on a cranberry farm that started shortly after the Civil War. “You get different environmental factors every growing season,” he said.

Indeed, looked at short-term, the climate trend is not apparent in the fields. Unlike elsewhere in the United States, New Jersey’s fall cranberry harvest was down this year, with triple-digit hot spells and heavy late season storms doing the damage. But 2010 was its second best year on record, yielding 562,000 barrels of about 2.7 bushels apiece.

Only a month before the Rutgers conference past November, though, the head of the world’s largest cranberry grower declared global warming is already affecting its crops in Massachusetts. Michael Hogan, president and chief executive officer of A.D. Makepeace of Wareham, Mass., said warmer late season nights are reducing sugar content and preventing fruit from reaching that deep red shade named “cranberry.”

Additionally, with a 16-month cycle from the setting of flower buds to the maturing of fruit, cranberry vines need an extended period of cool weather during their dormant period, with temperatures of roughly 32 degrees to 45 degrees F.

Autumn’s colorful red tide of berries, washed from their vines as bogs are flooded, give some people the mistaken impression that the plants grow in water. Actually, flooding is an easy way to harvest the majority of berries; those that will be used in processed foods like cranberry sauce and juice and so can stand a few bruises.

But without steps to fight climate change, that beautiful harvest might disappear, Hogan said. “Our children won’t be able to come see a working Massachusetts cranberry bog,” he said in an announcement of new research projects at two company sites to combat the effects of global warming.

“Interesting weather anomalies” have gotten the attention of cranberry farmers in her area, said Carolyn DeMoranville, director of the University of Massachusetts Cranberry Experiment Station in East Wareham. For example, while not hit as hard by rains from Hurricane Irene as New Jersey, the storm’s strong winds blew salt spray across many fields, causing some growers to increase irrigation, she said.

“I wouldn’t say climate change is front and center, but other [Massachusetts] groups are following it and we’re paying attention,” DeMoranville said. “We’re not in as quite an environmentally critical area as the Pine Barrens are down there.”

“There’s certainly more interest in it,” said Brian Wick, regional services director for the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers, because of the “interesting weather events that have occurred over the last several years.”

Last year, for example, an unusually early spring was followed by more traditional weather, forcing growers to work harder to prevent frost damage.

“We’re looking at the long-term possibilities of global warming that may affect production,” said John Porter, Makepeace’s head research scientist. “It’s not just warmer temperatures, but the likelihood of increasing variability in weather.”

Human societies and agriculture have adapted over the millennia to changes in regional conditions, as well as regular short-term affects like floods or heat waves. But the new era may bring “wider swings in weather than we have seen in the past,” Porter said.

Porter declined to discuss what that means for Makepeace’s operations, but he and others in Massachusetts noted that some growers there have expanded into eastern Canada in recent years.

British Columbia is Canada’s historical center of commercial cranberry farming, but over the past 50 years has been surpassed by Québec. High production and low prices led to a shakeout in the U.S. and Canada in the late 1990s, and concerns about pesticides constrained acreage, especially in populous areas like New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Partially as a result, the industry has spread to Canada’s Maritime provinces over the past 10 to 15 years. That had “nothing to do with climate change,” Wick said. “It was an opportunity to expand that wasn’t available here.”

At least initially, eastern Canadian provinces offered “some grant programs and help with permits,” he said. “The land is cheaper and pretty rural, so you don’t have the same problems with neighbors.”

While shorter growing seasons initially were a disincentive, the useful commercial growing region seems to be expanding, Wick said. “There’s even some bogs going in Newfoundland,” he said.

That’s a sharp contrast to New Jersey, where cranberry acreage peaked in 1921 at 11,200 acres. Regulations have prevented the expansion of bogs, or even the revival of cranberry land left fallow for five years. Only an explosion in yields from new varieties has allowed growers to produce more fruit from less land.

But Lee burst out laughing when asked if the climate change projections would give him reason to consider moving some operations north.

“We’ve been here since 1868,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Some of that may be cultural, rather than a lack of interest in science, according to Nick Vorsa, one of the field’s leading researcher as director of the state’s Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension in Chatsworth.

“A lot of those [Maritime] farms are limited partnerships where there’s an absentee owner and someone hired to run things on site,” Vorsa said. “Here, we have mainly family farmers, people who have been there for generations.”

Even in a difficult regulatory climate, and a possibly worsening physical climate, that makes people reluctant to look for alternatives, he said. But while “there’s no doubt that the weather has gotten warmer,” it remains to be seen how cranberry vines will respond.

Vorsa’s research includes breeding new strains of cranberries, such as the Demoranville cultivar released in 2006. A comparison with a major commercial strain developed 60 years earlier, the Stephens, shows the new plant is more heat resistant, he said. While he did not have climate change in mind during the research, the result is a plant that reflects current, hotter growing conditions, Vorsa said.

The new variety was bred in a hot decade, so in looking for plants with higher yields, “we have in fact been selecting for adaptation to the warmer weather,” Vorsa said. And so far, he said, even the warmest years on record have provided more than enough chilly days to carry the plants through dormancy.

But climate projections warn of a decision coming soon. While the New Jersey researchers were sharing data, the leading international scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was meeting in South Africa in an effort to revive the global effort that produced the 1997 Kyoto climate protocol.

That committed nations to reducing their emissions of the greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, which contribute to global warming. A handful of nations, primarily in Europe, met these initial goals.

The United States, the world’s largest per-capita polluter, never ratified the treaty. China, which has become the largest total polluter, was not covered. Canada, which is pushing the U.S. to buy more of its polluting tar sands oil, just dropped out of the process as the IPCC announced a tentative framework to write a new agreement.

Climate projections vary with the rate of emissions. If they slow, that 2050s heat wave may peak at another 3 degrees F. or so. But with a high-emissions scenario, heat and heavy rains, the outlook for New Jersey cranberries, not to mention barrier islands and train tunnels, looks worse.

In Massachusetts, “I just jokingly told someone that we’re going to become New Jersey,” because of global warming, DeMoranville said. “But that’s OK because you can grow cranberries there.”