Cranberries are headed north
Farmers see signs that the climate-sensitive cold-loving berries are shifting their range into Canada. Blueberries, too. What's to be done?
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"The more frequent occurrence of extreme weather is probably what is going to hit us first," says Serres. "If [droughts and hurricanes] happen more than once every five years, it's really going to impact the industry."Skip to next paragraph
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Drought, coupled with unseasonably warm weather, has reduced the average size of a cranberry by roughly one-third this year. The United States Department of Agriculture had forecast a Massachusetts yield of 180 million pounds, a yield now expected to fall short by some 31 million pounds, according to the CCCGA. At about $45 per 100-pound barrel, that translates into roughly a $14 million shortfall. Massachusetts produces one-third of the world's cranberries, surpassed only by Wisconsin.
"There has always been some fluctuation to some degree," says Jeff LaFleur, executive director of CCCGA, but not to this extent, with 30-million to 40-million-pound swings in production lately. "These swings seem to be really too aggressive," he says, pointing to unprecedented variations in temperature and rainfall.
The weather is beyond growers' control, but scientists at the University of Massachusetts' Cranberry Station in East Wareham are looking more closely at how to combat the pathogens they expect to increase with warmer temperatures.
One method of interest is subsurface irrigation (drip irrigation), a technique already used at many bogs in New Jersey. That state's high humidity encourages the growth of fungi and pathogens in marshes. By flooding the bogs from the bottom up, rather than with overhead sprinklers, the leaves and fruit stay drier, inhibiting rot and other maladies.
And while installing drip irrigation systems can be costly for small farmers, it is increasingly seen as a wise investment. Besides reducing water costs and pesticide use, this method also conserves water – and climate change could mean stricter water management.
Hardier hybrids could also help. While cranberry hybrid development has thus far been focused on improving fruit yield, nutrition, and color, Carolyn DeMoranville, director of the UMass Cranberry Station, says more attention will need to be put on developing disease- and drought-resistant types.
Ms. DeMoranville warns that these solutions may not help with global warming's long-term effects: "If we're talking about numerous degrees of difference in 50 years, that may be beyond working with the tools we have. But presuming that somebody decides to finally start doing something about climate change, then I think we would still have the tools ... to deal with the amount of change that's predicted in the less-drastic models."
Meanwhile, some growers worry that their once-ideal growing zones are relocating north. "I believe that the industry more than likely is heading north even without a climate change because we do need to fill the demand," says Beaton. Climate change "will just accelerate the move north for the industry."
Now, with fewer killing spring frosts, Quebec has surpassed Maine as the world's largest producer of wild blueberries, according to the University of Maine at Orono. With an annual average production of about 110 million pounds since 2001, growers of wild blueberries in Eastern Canada have outproduced Maine growers by some 45 million pounds a year since then.
While New England growers of European varieties of wine grapes will continue to experience a boost from rising temperatures, native varieties are likely to suffer. "The Concord grape is particularly vulnerable and requires longer winter chill and cooler temperatures than many of the European grapes," says Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and chair of the NECIA team. "Producers may ultimately adapt by changing to warmer-temperature varieties where that's possible."