Climate Change Presents Maine Farmers With New Challenges

Jul 9, 2014

Dave Handley at Highmoor Experimental Farm.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell

It's sometimes said that farmers must be both gamblers and fortune tellers in order to be profitable: They need to take risks, try new things and stay ahead of market trends.  While Maine is known for its reliable, frost-hardy crops, climate change may have its own hand to play.

The predicted warmer seasons may bring new opportunities - and new challenges -  for growers looking to make agriculture pay.

When it comes to potatoes, apples and blueberries, Maine is at or near the top. These cool weather crops have been part of Maine's market basket for centuries.  But grapes? Not so much.

"Here's our vineyard, so you're looking at just about a half-acre of grapes here. And this is a mix of table types and wine types," says David Handley.

Handley is a small fruit specialist with Maine Cooperative Extension.  And the vineyard is one of several experiments at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth, where researchers like Handley are testing new crops before advising farmers to grow them.

Thirty years ago, if a farmer came into his office with a notion to grow grapes, Handley says he'd spend at least 20 minutes trying to talk him out of it.  But, today it's a different story.

"Like it or not, the climate is changing a little bit," he says. "We're seeing our growing season a little longer than it used to be, our winters somewhat a little milder. Those of us who went through last winter will find that hard to believe, but the average is getting a little bit milder over time. So it's tempting to think that we might start growing things here that we haven't historically done."

That includes grapes for both eating and wine-making, blackberries, and stone fruits like peaches and plums. As reliable as Maine potatoes are, they're not top farm stall draws. According to the USDA, people drive farthest - and pay the most - to fill their shopping bags with succulent, sweet, soft fruits like berries and peaches. And farmers know this.

"Oh yeah. There's nothing better than a tree ripened peach," says fruit grower Andy Ricker. While Mainers already enjoy the benefits of tree-ripened apples, says Ricker, they're missing out on good other fruits.

The peaches available at the store, he says, were picked green for shipping and then artificially ripened. If he can offer fresh peaches at his farm stall, Ricker says he knows they'd sell. So he's trying a few new things in the orchard.

"This bottom row here is peaches, and I think there's some Asian Pears in there," he says. He's also just planted three acres of grapes.

His plan with all of these experimental crops, he says, is to try to produce a reliable yield, year after year, and get enough to sell in his own retail store. But Ricker admits that not much is known about what it would take to start producing these crops on a bigger scale in Maine, or whether fruits like peaches will ever grow reliably in the Northeast.

Fruit specialist Rene Moran isnpects a cherry tree at Highmoor Experimental Farm.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell

That's where research farms like Highmoor come in, says Rene Moran, a tree fruit specialist who is currently testing several varieties of peaches, plums and cherries.

"Apples are very easy to grow with the infrastructure that farmers already have," she says. "And if they have to change the equipment they need, or do they have to hire extra people, it might change the financial picture of these new crops."

For example, if it turns out that hand-thinning plum trees takes an hour per tree, that means a more expensive plum for the consumer. Or if the spotted wing drosophila, a recently-arrived pest which preys on soft fruits, starts killing peaches and blackberries, that could be an expensive problem too.

Moran says even climate change isn't predictable. "The bad part about climate change is that the temperatures in the winter fluctuate too much. So it's more like a Southern winter, where even winter-hardy things like apples lose their hardiness and get hit by a sudden freeze."

That's just what happened this year. She says after several promising peach years, this past winter, with its brief warm spells and killing deep freezes, likely obliterated most of the state's fledgling peach crop. Even some of the state's beloved apples suffered some winter injury.

And that, says Moran, is why more research is needed before any farmer makes a big investment in traditionally warmer weather fruits. Today's farmers may not be the beneficiaries of such research, but David Handley with Cooperative Extension says he predicts the next several decades to be "exciting" ones for fruit growers in Maine.