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Farmers in state shift with climate; new techniques, crops getting try

by Emily Walkenhorst | December 31, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The "hipster banana" takes up more and more room now at Guy Ames' orchard in Fayetteville, where it once took up no room at all.

Ames says his apple and pear crops are hurting more with higher temperatures, so he's growing pawpaws, a green, orb-shaped fruit that can weigh as much as 1 pound. They are a mushy yellow on the inside, with large brown seeds, and are high in potassium.

Pawpaws are native to Arkansas and the United States, unlike apples and pears, and they thrive in the South's humid subtropical climate.

Ames believes pawpaws are a partial solution to his largely organic orchard's problem of climate change, which he says is displacing apple agriculture where he farms.

Higher winter temperatures cause his apple trees to flower earlier, but they die off when freezes come at the usual times of year.

Some farmers in Arkansas are adjusting what they do to adapt to long-term weather changes. Some are altering what they plant, looking at different ways to genetically modify crops to be more heat resistant, or reducing their crops' greenhouse gas emissions for the sake of the environment and their pocketbooks.

Average temperatures in north Arkansas have risen over the past century by less than 1 degree Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2016 report. That's not as much as they have risen in other states, particularly in the north and west. Average temperatures have decreased in some parts of south and east Arkansas, as they have in other Southern states.

Where Ames lives, just north of Arkansas 16 near the White River, temperatures rose slightly from 1951 to 2006, according to The Nature Conservancy's Climate Wizard, which is based on federal data and co-produced with the University of Washington and the University of Southern Mississippi. The Climate Wizard details annual temperature changes that are more geographically narrow and show variability within north Arkansas.

Other orchard owners said they didn't believe any recent weather was out of the ordinary, and they weren't too concerned with climate-change predictions.

One, located in Dover, where temperatures declined slightly from 1951 to 2006, said he thought climate change was a hoax. Another, in Lowell, where temperatures increased slightly from 1951 to 2006, said he didn't know what to think of climate change. He's 93 and said he isn't worried. This year, an April freeze wiped out the orchards' peach crops.

The EPA and other federal agencies predict that the shielding of much of Arkansas from climate change-caused heat increases won't last much longer. Those areas were protected from higher temperatures because of sulfate emissions. Sulfate reflects sunlight back into space. But sulfate emissions are declining as efforts to reduce ground-level ozone, which can be hazardous to health, have taken hold.

Climate change predictions are vast and ominous. Some are more drastic than others, depending on how much greenhouse gases continue to be emitted. Globally, rising seas and temperatures will wreak havoc, according to federal reports. In Arkansas, hotter weather will mean more storms, worse storms, more ticks and a change to the way the Natural State does agriculture, according to various federal studies. The amount of rainfall in the Southeast has already increased 27 percent since 1958, the EPA reported in 2016.

The fourth National Climate Assessment, published the day after Thanksgiving, warned that the nation's gross domestic product could decline by as much as 10 percent if greenhouse gas emissions are not substantially reduced. In agriculture, extreme heat, drought, wildfires and heavy downpours could reduce crop yields and damage livestock health. People could be exposed to more foodborne and waterborne diseases, ticks with dangerous diseases and extreme weather.

The assessment comes from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, mandated by Congress to produce such an assessment at least every four years.

Planting other varieties of crops is how farmers should adapt to climate change, said Andy Pereira, a professor in the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's department of crop, soil and environmental sciences. Pereira has the Anheuser-Busch and Arkansas Wholesalers Professorship in plant molecular genetics.

Temperatures are higher, including at night, Pereira said.

"All of this is changing on a global scale, and even in Arkansas," he said.

Agriculture is a highly adaptable industry, said Mike Daniels, professor and administrative apprentice in crop, soil and environmental science at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service. Daniels is careful not to use the term "climate change." He said he doesn't know precisely what is responsible for recent weather patterns.

"But we're also becoming more aware that we're going to have to manage extremes more than before," he said.

The usual calendar of when seasons change may be shifting, he said, and it looks like farmers will have to adjust to higher temperatures. Rains are getting heavier and more frequent, he said.

Scientists largely attribute climate change to greenhouse gases released through heavily industrial human activity, including production and transportation. But rice farms also emit a great deal of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is also emitted from decaying waste at landfills. As a greenhouse gas, it's about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the World Resources Institute.

At rice farms, methane comes from bacteria that grow when soil is deprived of oxygen. Oxygen can't get into the soil because of the water that floods the fields.

Farmers across the South have taken to new methods of irrigating that reduce methane emissions.

Alternate wetting and drying is a technique that reduces water use by carefully measuring water levels on the fields. The technique is in wider use in Asia, where water is less abundant. Farmers wait until the water has been absorbed into the ground, leaving behind a low enough water level, before re-watering, instead of maintaining a higher, standing level throughout growing season. That, in turn, reduces methane emissions. Rice farmers have also been adopting the technology to reduce water use and costs.

A lot of those farmers are taking advantage of carbon trading, Daniels said. They can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and sell credits for them with companies, such as Microsoft, that emit more than what they're allowed for carbon dioxide, he said.

Daniels and others at the university, state and federal agencies and other organizations have encouraged Delta farmers to reduce water use for years in an effort to conserve the declining aquifers in south and east Arkansas.

Jim Whitaker and his brother, Sam, are among the farmers who have implemented alternate wetting and drying and sold credits to Microsoft.

Jim Whitaker said he was at a conference listening to Merle Anders, a now-retired University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, professor and current agronomy consultant, and Dennis Carman, chief engineer and director of the White River Irrigation District, speak about water reduction, greenhouse gases and carbon reduction -- "all these crazy things I'd never heard about." He asked the men to help him change how he farms. At the time, he thought he could make money selling carbon credits to California companies.

"I just jumped on board," he said.

Now, he says he doesn't make much money doing that but has saved hundreds of thousands of gallons of water each year. Plus, nitrogen seeps into the soil better with less water and helps the crops grow.

"It's just actually very simple, but it takes a year or two to kind of get comfortable with it," Whitaker said.

Pereira also recommends genetically modified rice -- "transgenic," as he calls it -- to better resist heat when temperatures rise further in the Delta. Right now, he has a $4.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study rice genes.

After nearly 40 years of fruit farming in Northwest Arkansas, Ames is planting Southern heirloom apples and pawpaws now.

He said the temperatures are not as low at night as they were when he first started (nighttime temperatures affect how red an apple gets), and fruit are blooming earlier. Freeze dates haven't really changed, he said. Freezes kill crops that have already started blooming.

More heat also means more diseases that attack his crops, he said.

"We're already at the Southern edge of their adaptability," Ames said. "This really aggravates that."

Pests are a major concern of Audrey House, a winegrower and owner of Chateau Aux Arc Vineyards and Winery and member of the Citizens' Climate Lobby, in Franklin County. They are worse now, she said, than when she bought her land near Altus in 1998 to achieve a lifelong dream, and they destroy grapes quickly and surreptitiously.

Ames, who tries not to use pesticides, needs more disease-resistant pears to successfully plant them. He worries pesticides are needed now more than ever.

Apples still make up most of Ames Orchard & Nursery's business, and the Arkansas Black apple, which grows darker in fuller sun, is still Ames' bestseller. But he hopes consumers will open their appetites to the heirloom varieties, instead of the more popular kinds that he says don't grow as well here, such as Fujis or galas.

Even in places as far north as Michigan, fruit farmers have reported decimated apple crops associated with unusually warm winters, followed by the usual dates of freezing, according to news reports from NPR and other media outlets.

Ames believes pawpaws are a trending fruit.

The "hipster bananas," as he's heard them called, taste like a combination of mango and banana. The are often used in smoothies, sorbets and beers, but they are frequently also eaten raw.

While he's excited about the future of the pawpaw, Ames hasn't changed everything to make room for the fruit. He knows what he's still known for and what consumers want, so he won't stop farming apples.

"That's our fruit," he said.

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