USDA Northeast Climate Hub

Author: 
Ben Hill

The USDA Northeast Climate Hub is part of a national network, established by the President’s climate action plan in 2013. The Northeast region incorporates territory from Maine to West Virginia, west to New York, including DC. The Climate Hub’s mission is to deliver science-based knowledge and practical information to farmers, foresters and ranchers with regards to climate-based risks. These include invasive species, drought, flooding, and other extreme weather events. The Climate Hub works with federal and state agencies, non-profit organizations and land grant universities to translate research and communicate information and solutions to relevant stakeholders. We spoke with the USDA Northeast Climate Hub’s coordinator, Erin Lane, about the effects of climate change on farmers in New England and were surprised at some of their observations. Since climate models are predicting quite different scenarios throughout the globe, we were primarily interested in how climate change is affecting New Englanders and what implications this has for farm, fish and food enterprise viability. Unlike other areas of the United States, New England is experiencing increased precipitation, though distributed over fewer precipitation events. Irregular precipitation patterns have been observed in tandem with warmer average temperatures. This means that with increased evaporation and time between rainfall events, the ultimate result can be reduced soil moisture. In 2016 parts of the Northeast experienced the worst drought in 50 years (NY, MA, CT, RI, NH) while record rainfall fell in the south (WV). It is interesting to note that the increased average temperatures are primarily a result of rising annual minimum temperatures (e.g. nighttime, winter). This has serious implications for crop growth cycles, and is affecting processes such as leaf-out phenology and flowering. This past winter, fruit farmers felt these effects as warm winter temperatures led to early tree budding. This was followed by a hard freeze in February, which decimated the peach crop throughout many parts of New England. Many of these same farms also grow vegetables and hay, whose production was strongly affected by the drought. This year is perfect illustration of how a changing climate can affect farm viability in New Hampshire. When we asked Erin for some examples of how growers are dealing with climate related issues, she highlighted practices which are unlikely to be called innovative. Climate mitigation strategies include building soil health, protecting crops from extreme weather events (e.g. high tunnels, ventilation), planning and diversification. The USDA Northeast Climate Hub’s goal is to help farmers and landowners integrate science based knowledge into their decision making and planning. For example, a grower might plant new orchards on north facing slope, with hopes of avoiding warmer winter temperatures and early leaf out. The Northeast Climate Hub is also focused on developing and promoting tools that help farmers, foresters, and landowners make decisions. In addition, the Climate Hub is interested in more detailed monitoring tools, which could provide real-time information regarding pest and disease pressure, frost warning, and soil moisture. As climate and weather patterns are continually less predictable, these tools may become even more useful for New England growers.