Climate change creating new challenges for North Fork farmers

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTOA farmfield being irrigated on Herricks Lane in Jamesport Monday evening. Farmer John Kujawski said that they had just fumigated it and needed to irrigate it because it has been so dry- it will help the potato crop next year.

Local growers and farmers say climate change is creating new challenges, with extreme weather conditions, sudden storms, rising temperatures and drought making it even more difficult to cope with a perennially unpredictable Mother Nature.

“Farmers are really at the whim of nature,” said Jessica Anson, public policy director at the Long Island Farm Bureau, a farming advocacy group. “Climate variability is the new normal.”

For some on the North Fork, however, those challenges are also creating opportunities.

“The effects of climate change in the near term seem to already be benefiting us on a net basis,” said Kareem Massoud, winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. He added, however, that growing grapes has become more difficult thanks to wild weather patterns.

This autumn broke records across the United States as the hottest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And while one climate-monitoring satellite demonstrated that global land temperatures dropped this year, Earth’s overall temperature actually rose when heat trapped in oceans was taken into account.

The unusual weather extended to Long Island, where the National Weather Service reported that this year’s official meteorological autumn — September through November — was the third warmest on record. Last year was Long Island’s warmest fall on record and six of the top 10 warmest autumns here have occurred since 2005, said NWS meteorologist Tim Morrin.

“It’s just kind of a reflection locally of what’s happening regionally and even globally,” Mr. Morrin said. “There has been recent warming trend in the data … It just goes to show you that we’ve had more of a propensity to be warmer in these last 10 years.”

A drought that has gripped Long Island for more than a year wasn’t eased by the warm fall, Mr. Morrin added. Drought is slow to develop and dissipate and has already reached a “severe” level in eastern Suffolk County, he said.

“We’ve had some remarkably dry falls,” he added.

The drought has forced some farmers to irrigate their land more, Ms. Anson said.

To make matters worse, this summer and fall were marked by sudden downpours and storms — causing water runoff and flooded roads and farms — rather than more dispersed rainstorms that allow the ground to soak up the water.

“[Farmers] expect in the Northeast for there to be more precipitation, but that precipitation isn’t happening equally” throughout the harvest season, Ms. Anson said.

Sudden temperature shifts are also making weather harder to predict.

“That’s making business decisions extremely challenging because you don’t know what’s next,” she said.

But some groups are taking steps to benefit from climate change, Ms. Anson said — either by diversifying and planting new crops or by experimenting with new tools and farming methods.

The Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, for instance, has released several online tools to help growers predict frost warnings, drought conditions and other weather factors.

Executive director Michael Hoffmann said climate change is positively affecting areas of upstate New York. While sections of the Southwest and Midwest become hotter and drier, growers in parts of northern New York can now grow rapeseed for canola oil or switch to varieties of corn with longer growing seasons. On the other hand, sudden frosts have hit upstate apple and fruit growers hard, he said.

“You’re dealing with extreme weather, longer seasons,” Mr. Hoffmann said. “Things are changing, so to succeed in this changing environment you have to adapt.”

Mr. Massoud thinks the North Fork is “well-positioned” to adapt to weather changes. He said Long Island’s cooler climate could make it easier to deal with a long-term rise in temperature as opposed to other wine-growing areas.

“Depending on where in the world you are, you reach a point where it’s simply too hot to grow any grapes,” he said.

That threat doesn’t loom on Long Island. As temperatures rise, certain grape varietals, like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay, will become easier to grow.

Even so, more extreme weather shifts will make it challenging for grape growers to manage ripeness — an inherently delicate process.

“Those sort of things have happened in the past, but you’re beginning to see such events with more frequency and with greater extremes,” Mr. Massoud said. “It does complicate things. You basically just do the best you can and grin and bear it.”

Summer hailstorms and thunderstorms can be devastating for both vineyards and fruit growers. In 2015, a sudden severe storm damaged roughly 2,000 peach, apricot and cherry trees at Davis Peach Farm in Wading River, ruining about 15 days’ worth of harvestable produce. The farm closed earlier this year, with a manager saying the terrible season had doomed the business.

A consistent trend of stronger storms, however, hasn’t been reported in recent years. For now, the threat of similar devastation is more a worry than a reality.

Still, Mr. Massoud said he would prefer more reliable weather.

“This is categorically more complicated and more troublesome for farmers of all kinds,” he said.

To lessen the impact of climate change, Paumanok has installed solar panels to make its operation more sustainable. Mr. Massoud hopes the winery will soon be powered completely by renewable energy.

Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck, meanwhile, has already achieved that goal through a combination of solar and wind energy.

“We watch the meter run backward,” said winemaker and co-owner Barbara Shinn.

In 2012, Ms. Shinn helped found Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, a group of vineyard owners devoted to more environmentally friendly growing methods. The organization’s main goal is to reduce nitrogen levels in local waters due to fertilizer runoff and leeching; its members represent more than half of the area’s wine-growing acreage.

Ms. Shinn said growers can also take steps to reduce their carbon footprint. During a conference held last week at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, she discussed ways to use crops to store carbon in branches and plant life, a process known as carbon sequestering.

“It’s important to steward the land and farming has a big impact on carbon dioxide emissions,” she said.

Woody plants like apple trees, blueberry bushes and grapevines extract carbon dioxide from the air in order to grow. It can take up to seven years for that carbon to fully decay and return to the environment, she said.

Growers can also use non-chemical fertilizers by composting with seaweed, fish byproducts or peanut shells, storing carbon in fields while also “restoring the soil to a healthy natural state,” Ms. Shinn said.

While some growers are focusing on more sustainable solutions, others say the climate shifts aren’t noticeable.

“For the most part we have our planting schedule and we stick to it,” said Phil Schmitt of Schmitt’s Family Farm in Riverhead. Irrigation costs increased at his property this year but were fortunately offset by a drop in fuel prices.

Mr. Schmitt doesn’t dare risk losing crops by counting on next year’s autumn to be warm. And the drought hasn’t concerned him, since pouring rains would do more damage to crops and be harder to control than dry conditions.

“A drought might hurt you and a wet season might kill you,” he said.

On the whole, Mr. Schmitt believes this year was fairly close to an average growing season. He hasn’t spotted effects of climate change and noted that he’s not sure how much he “buys into that.” The changes are slow and gradual, unlike the burning of spinach crops caused by ozone depletion decades ago. Farmers, he added, have always been at the mercy of weather.

Ms. Shinn is optimistic that North Fork growers will find a way to cope with whatever Mother Nature throws at them.

“It’s nothing that we can’t deal with,” she said. “Farmers have been dealing with weather all the time, but we have to keep our eyes and ears open and stay on our toes.”

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File photo: An irrigated Jamesport farm during a drought in 2015. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)