The muggy summer evenings of Canfield, Ohio, were filled with countless lightning bugs in 2002. There were so many that I would run out of numbers that I knew as a six-year-old. This summer as I sat out on a porch swing fifteen years later, I made myself dizzy squinting to see if that one sparkle was indeed a rare sighting of a lightning bug. The once magical display in the corn fields surrounding my home had dwindled to none in less than two decades. Research generally attributes this decline to the loss of firefly habitat from development and excess artificial lighting at night. To me, it was an alarming signal that consequences of unsustainable human development could affect this inland Midwestern farm town too.
Agriculture has been the backbone of most Midwestern states and provides crop exports both nationally and internationally. However, a deficit in production can destroy entire communities’ economies. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History states thatclimate models suggest a seven to twelve-degree increase in temperature (F) in the winter and a six to fourteen-degree (F) increase in the summer for northeastern Ohio. The warming temperatures that accompany climate change will bring wetter springs and falls, with higher potential for drought during the summer growing season.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview David Hull, a third generation farmer at White House Fruit Farm, a two-hundred acre farm in Canfield, about his agricultural practices and his adaptation strategies for a changing climate (see http://www.whitehousefruitfarm.com) Hull has been a family friend for decades and introduced me to the challenges facing agriculture in the northeastern Ohio region. He helped me understand the risks associated with increased temperatures and precipitation for northeastern Ohio agriculture. Northeastern Ohio already has one of the wettest climates in the United States. Thus, Hull has to take constant preventative measures to prevent moisture buildup in his apple orchards, the farm’s most famous crop. Warmer temperatures lead to higher amounts of moisture in the air that can get trapped under leaves and branches. In addition to using fungicides and herbicides, Hull must prune constantly to allow for maximum sun exposure to prevent diseases that enjoy living in dark and moist environments.
As a result of the naturally high precipitation rate, the water table is already relatively close to the surface. This makes the area prone to soil saturation and flooding that can wipe out entire parts of the apple orchard and other fruit trees. This occurs when roots can no longer act as anchors in the soil. According to Hull, too much water is actually worse than too little water because removing the water is such a complicated and inefficient process. While a large corporate agriculture firm may be able to cope with more frequent flooded fields plot destructions, will local Ohioan farmers be able to do the same? Climate change poses a real risk to the local farmers that sustain the Midwest economies and impacts the food security and livelihoods of the people who depend on them.