Climate Change Is Pushing Pacific Northwest Farmers to Protect Crops from Extreme Heat

Climate Change Is Pushing Pacific Northwest Farmers to Protect Crops from Extreme Heat
Dec 06, 2022

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By Michael Crowe

Hotter temperatures are changing the agricultural landscape in the Pacific Northwest, especially for iconic tree fruit growers. Keith Veselka has seen that first-hand over the past few years operating NWFM, LLC, which manages 1,400 acres of apples and cherries for institutional investors across Washington state.

Over the last few years, Veselka has increased investments in mitigation strategies to protect crops against damage when temperatures soar, and he’s noticed his neighbors doing the same. “More and more people are covering their crops with shade netting or some other type of material, and then they’re looking at misters, which are like foggers that help create a cooler atmosphere in the orchards,” he said. “And sometimes a combination of both.”

Veselka’s installed evaporative cooling at about 90 percent of his sites, covering about 30 percent of his crops. He also uses calcium and kaolin clay sprays, which physically cover fruit to protect it. In his experience, mitigations lead to about 20 percent to 30 percent less damage.

Washington leads the nation in producing apples and sweet cherries, but it’s not just tree fruit crops under threat in the region. A large portion of the country’s processed berries are grown in the Pacific Northwest, as are much of the nation’s potatoes. During the deadly heat wave of 2021, researchers found that berries dried up on the vines and potato plant leaves were scorched and curled inward, an indicator of heat stress that can impact quality.

The sun- and heat-reduction techniques Veselka and others employ aim to minimize stress on plants and limit sunburn damage on fruit. Sunburn visibly hurts the apples’ quality and can result in a 40 percent yield loss, according to some studies.

As growers work to preserve crops in hotter temperatures, regulators have also been working to ensure workers are protected as well. Farmworkers have long lacked protections from dangerous condition caused by the climate crisis, leading Oregon to pass heat and smoke regulations. Advocates in Florida have pushed for safeguards, and Washington passed smoke and heat regulations after the 2021 event.

Climate data continues to show a trend of warmer temperatures across the U.S., with growing impacts in the historically mild Northwest. Summer 2022 in the contiguous U.S. was the third-hottest recorded in 128 years, t he National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports, with an average 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit above average. Idaho, Washington, and Oregon each had the warmest August on record. Data from Climate Central’s Climate Shift Index tool, which measures the fingerprint of climate change in daily weather, found most of the Northwest experienced 15-30 days of daytime high temps that were made at least twice as likely by climate change.

Changes to nighttime lows were equally troubling, according to Climate Central. Most of that area saw increased nighttime lows made at least twice as likely by climate change for 15 to 30 days. Parts of the Cascades, Central Oregon, and Southern Idaho experienced 30 to 50 climate-driven warmer nights over the summer. August nighttime temperatures in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Idaho were the warmest since record-keeping began in 1895.

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