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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Before there was a California, New England fed itself. Somehow. The soil was lousy, the climate cold, and the diet limited (lots of cabbage, no avocados). At least there was plenty of water.

Thanks to improved transportation, the production of fruits and vegetables followed the sun, first moving to the fertile Midwest and then settling in the deserts of California. The Central Valley’s climate was close to perfect and the lack-of-rain problem fixed by moving water from elsewhere and digging deep wells.

A multiyear drought made worse by climate change has altered the assumption that California’s agricultural empire will always be able to stock the nation’s produce shelves. Warmer temperatures, meanwhile, have turned formerly inhospitably cold parts of America into contenders for that market.

This is no endorsement of climate change — let’s make that clear — but rising temperatures are breathing new life into northern agriculture. Farm economists say that the net result will be a vast expansion in America’s food growing capability.

A century ago, corn was not a viable crop above North Dakota’s southern third. But an average temperature rise of 2.7 degrees over that period has let North Dakota farmers grow feed corn up to the Canadian border. The growing season there is three weeks longer. In farming, that’s huge.

For similar reasons, soybeans now grow in upstate New York. And though the state’s Finger Lakes region has produced hardy wine grapes for a long time, milder winters have enabled it to nurture fancier European grape varieties.

As for New England, the hope is that some centuries-old farms will become profitable, as well as picturesque. Agriculture never disappeared there, but it had to concentrate on dairy products and niche crops, such as cranberries and wild blueberries. Warmer weather opens new possibilities. For example, peaches may become a commercial crop in Maine.

A paper out of Brandeis University predicts that by 2030, the New England region could have three times as much farmland as it does now, thanks to warmer weather. Should that happen, New England may end up producing half its food.

Which brings us to the concept of food miles. For more than a decade, agricultural scholars have marveled at a national system of food distribution that ships California vegetables thousands of miles to eastern cities where the same things could easily grow a few miles away.

One famous study at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that carrots consumed at Iowa institutions traveled an average of 1,800 miles from the conventional source (California). Had they been grown in Iowa, the average trip would have been 27 miles.

What gives? Anyone who travels the Hawkeye State feasts on vistas of horizon-to-horizon farmland. The soil is heavenly, and water falls from the skies. But a system of subsidized industrial agriculture has turned most of Iowa’s farm acreage into factories for commodity crops, mainly corn and soybeans.

Global warming seems to be also changing the distribution of rainfall. The Northwest, central states, and the South are seeing more rain and snow than they did a century ago. The Rockies and most of the Southwest are seeing less.

Again, climate change is not something to celebrate, including in places seeing opportunity in it. The northern states’ ghastly cold winters had the advantage of killing off insects. The pests now have a better chance of proliferating. In one of the sadder examples, bark beetles have been decimating the aspens of a warmer and drier Colorado.

The New England soil is still rocky. Will warmer temperatures, new seed varieties and other technological advances bolster its farming economy? Remember, it still rains there — a lot.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

Photo: Joel Dinda via Flickr

  • Eleanore Whitaker

    NJ has always been the “Garden State.” More than half of southern NJ is comprised of large agricultural areas that produce and export fruits and vegetables as far north as Maine, as far south as Florida and as far west as Mississippi.

    The reality is that the southern and midwestern states thought by jacking prices on meats, seafood and produce, that they could hold everyone up north hostage.

    Yankee ingenuity prevails. The move toward home and apartment container gardening defrays the cost of buying imported produce.

  • johninPCFL

    Take a trip through the pine forests around Yellowstone, or the forests around Zion and you see thousands of acres of “standing dead”. Bark beetles no longer killed by low winter temperatures multiply and kill off millions of trees now. A nice increase in housing prices follows.

    So, did it snow this winter? Yeah, in record amounts. Another nice thing about a warmer atmosphere is that over the ocean it holds more water and winds can blow it straight over the pole to Chicago.

    Did they set record low temperatures here? In a few areas. They also set record high temperatures in others, and in Australia (the other end of the earth), they again set a summer high temperature.

    • 788eddie

      johninPCFL: “So, did it snow this winter? Yeah, in record amounts.” Record amounts in the east; the west had record lows for snow, continuing their drought.

  • hjs3

    Great article! And yes, it’s always been about what’s in the dirt and what might grown there… Old New England farms were beautiful growing -up and a wonderful place to take children in summer-well into fall.I remember the produce and berries being great although the season was short…Corn that came from out around Springfield MA was sensational. Maybe I can convince Eleanore to send me some of her prized NJ tomatoes here in Florida….Produce here is tasteless and grossly over-rated….Looks are OH SO deceiving…Small planting experiment here with resurrected soil (coral-sand-rocks) Going to see what I can do with the old NJ fav, Ramapo tomato… The write-ups are mouth watering and even the commercial guys have latched back on to it… And my 4×12′ bed with water looks accepting….What I couldn’t do with a few acres off the coast of NH..:-)

  • TZToronto

    As with so many articles written for the American “market,” this one implies that agriculture, like weather, stops at the Canadian border. Areas of Canada that once had rather short growing seasons are now finding it possible to plant a little earlier and harvest a little later. So it may well happen that Canada will start being a major supplier of agricultural products to the US. The wine region of the Niagara Peninsula, for example, has seen a huge growth in the number of wineries, due to the slightly milder winters and the moderating effect of being between two large bodies of water, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. In the same region, there are huge greenhouses that supply fresh produce year-round in Canada. The prairies still grow wheat, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see other crops previously grown only south of the border creeping into Canada.