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.
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Photo: Joel Dinda via Flickr