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NC Farmers Face Climate Challenges

NC Dept of Agriculture

Farmers gamble millions—sometimes tens of millions —of dollars on the weather every year. When they place their bets on crops and animals, they look at the science, they listen to experts, and sometimes they think about stories their mama used to tell them.

RC Hunt, a hog farmer in eastern North Carolina, remembers such a story.

“Over on the Tar River, as a young girl, she remembered seeing one of her friends drive their automobile across the Tar River, one cold winter,” Hunt says. “Don’t think I’ll live long enough to see that again.”

Hunt has seen warming in other ways, and it’s affected how he farms. But he’s thinking now about the future of his 1,000 or so acres. He needs help if his farm is going to stay productive.

That’s true for almost all of the state’s farmers and foresters, and it’s vitally important to the state’s economic future. Agriculture and forestry make up almost one-fifth of North Carolina’s gross domestic product.

Ryan Boyles is the State Climatologist. He considers terrabytes of climate data, and offers this assessment, starting with what North Carolinians can expect in future winters:

“We’re expecting more warm days in the wintertime. So right now while we typically expect a few days with temperatures in the 70s, we’re going to see more of those.”

Here’s what Boyles says we can expect during future springs: “We’re going to have more of those warm days in the spring, probably more intense thunderstorms. Pests are going to emerge earlier.

Boyles on summers: “If you like the hot, sticky conditions, you’re going to like living in North Carolina. More of those extreme hot days. Fewer of those days where it cools off at night.

And finally, autumns, according to Boyles: “More intense hurricanes. Because the oceans are warmer, and will continue to be warmer, when they get organized, those hurricanes are going to be monsters.”

Credit Climate Central
It's getting hotter in NC.

Monster storms. Extreme heat. More thunder stoms. Sounds like a challenging climate, especially if you’re a farmer.

“From what we grow, to the infrastructure systems that we depend upon, to the pests and diseases that we fight in our forests or our farm fields, this is one of those issues that is going to touch every aspect of how our industry operates,” says Ernie Shea, the executive director of Solutions From the Land.

Water might top the list. It won’t be as bad as out west or even in the Midwest, but water scarcity is poised to become a bigger issue in North Carolina and throughout the southeast. The global population is expected to jump from 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion people by 2050. All those people will need to be fed, and they’ll need drinking water.

“More and more whether its forestry or agriculture, people want water, we need water,” says Steve McNulty, the director of the USDA’s Southeast Regional Climate Hub in Raleigh. “And there’s these continuing conflicts that are developing in the southeast where people are moving down into this region and the needs of places like metro Atlanta and other large cities are coming into conflict with agriculture.”

Faced with the facts, many in agriculture and forestry in the state are looking ahead. They have formed NC ADAPT, a collaboration of farmers, scientists, business owners, and others focused on helping the state’s agriculture and forest industries adapt to the changing climate – and even identify the opportunities for growth that might come up.

The group released a report earlier this summer and hopes to develop a more comprehensive strategy by next year.

Politically, of course, it’s going to be a tough sell. Hunt, the hog farmer, has taken a leadership role with NC ADAPT. He’s a well-known and respected farmer in North Carolina. He’s also the past president of both the state and national pork producers associations.

And, as he told a gathering of several dozen farmers earlier this week, he’s also realistic about the politics at work.

“I think when you start discussing global warming, we draw a line in the sand and we have people that believe it and people that don’t,” says Hunt. “For us to be effective, we have to push that project to the side.”

As the political fight over global warming heats up in the Legislature and on Capitol Hill, farmers will be in their fields in North Carolina, trying to deal with the conditions that are literally on the ground.

Where some see pending disasters, others see opportunity – and hope.

“As you look across the country, I still prefer our part of the region, our part of the country, to anywhere,” says Hunt.

And even if he didn’t think that, it’s not as if a farmer here in North Carolina could pick up and move his business somewhere else.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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