Fahrenheit 451?

CR Lawn, 2006

In successive growing seasons market grower Eero Ruttilla of Nesenkeag Farm in southern New Hampshire endured the two rainiest months (October 2005 and May 2006) on 130 years’ record. From May 13 to June 13 this year he had 20 inches! Both years his fields were flooded. “Even for New England the weather was erratic,” he understates.

Michigan CSA farmer Anne Elder recounts, “2005 was our hottest summer since our farm began 18 years ago. Dry spring turned spring broccoli into cow feed. By mid-summer we laid drip everywhere.”

David Nonnenmacher of Hawley, PA, reports, “This [2005] was a year with relentless heat from late June to past Labor Day.…Incredibly I picked and sold tomatoes well into October, more than a month after our usual frost date.” He predicts, “I don’t want to sound alarmist, but it is only a matter of time before a hurricane roars up the east coast and devastates our gardens. I am old enough to remember Hazel in ’54 and Connie and Diane in successive weeks in August ’55. Dad and I cut our flattened and twisted field corn with a sickle…with much difficulty.”

“It will be interesting to see how my Maine seeds do here in Kan-zuz…After living in Maine for 20 years” and then moving to Kansas, “and seeing the massive changes here, I can firmly declare that global warming is for real! The western prairie is slowly becoming more like desert every year, and the winter is unlike anything I can remember, six weeks of 50-60° F weather!” muses Michael Cummings of Salinas, KS.

Here in Maine, we have had only 3 seasons out of 34 in which we failed to get our first killing frost by the end of Common Ground Fair in late Sept. Two of the three were 2005 and 2006. Yet, our spring this year was so sunless and wet that for the first time ever, I was unable to get on the ground in time to plant winter squash. June 20 came and went with the soil still not workable. The nature of our growing season has changed and it is changing the way we must garden and farm.

We are hearing from customers all across the country who are witnessing aberrant weather patterns and unprecedented climate change. Their observations are backed up by climatologists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies who say that 2005 had the highest global annual average surface temperature in more than a century. The four next warmest years have been, in order, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004! Global warming is now 1° F over the past three decades and its pace is accelerating. Scientists at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC, confirm that the first six months of 2006 recorded the highest average temperature for the continental United States since records started being kept in 1895.

In cold New England, not all the change is bad. Heat-loving crops like watermelon, okra and eggplant are becoming easier to grow. The extended mild falls permit longer harvests of tomatoes and peppers, and bumper crops of broccoli, cauliflower and fall greens. And yet, even here, the benefits may be overshadowed by the undesirable changes. We can no longer count on long winter snow cover to protect our perennials. Aided by warm winters and wet springs, deer ticks are multiplying, increasing the threat of very nasty Lyme Disease. Poison ivy plants are growing bigger as atmospheric concentrations of CO2 increase, and the active ingredient urushiol that causes the skin irritation is becoming more potent. We have watched Japanese Beetles extend their northern range year-by-year, we are seeing more squash bugs and potato leaf hoppers, and the tomato hornworm is becoming ubiquitous in plots that were not formerly troubled by it.

In Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth, an astonishing set of graphs shows the correlation between atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and global temperatures over the last 650,000 years. With CO2 levels at record highs and projected to spike in the next generation, we can expect that global warming will affect everything…even seeds. Researchers at the University of Florida Gainesville and the International Rice Institute have found that higher temperatures reduce the ability of plants to set seeds and could even render them sterile.

As gardeners and farmers we are on the real front lines, needing to observe, predict and respond to climate changes to feed our communities. When is the sap running, when do the first peepers peep, when do the lilacs bloom, when does the first striped cucumber beetle arrive now, and how is that changed from 20 years ago? Is there a relationship between when the apple trees blossom and when to plant the sweet corn? How much later can we harvest fall broccoli than we used to? How can we adapt and adjust to the changes? Better yet, how can we find the will and the resiliency to reshape our behavior so that we might slow, ameliorate, or even reverse these changes in time?