A Dark Road to Take: Climate Change From a Farmer’s Eyes
HAVE YOU NOTICED? It's getting warmer: 2016 was the hottest year on record for planet Earth—2015 was the next hottest, and 2014 the next. Three in a row! Where I come from, that’s called a “hat trick,” or it would be, were it viewed as a good thing. For most of us, it’s not easy to register incremental increases in temperature. You wake up in the morning, the sun is shining, maybe the high for the day turns out to be one degree above the average. So what? You still have to get the kids to school, get to work, pay the mortgage, sift through a flood of emails, Twitter messages and cell phone texts. There are still the challenges of everyday life to deal with, and the weather, unless it creates hazardous driving conditions, is usually the least of them. I wonder, are we like the frog in the pot of water that gets slowly hotter and hotter until the water is boiling and it’s too late to jump out?
If you were living in Sydney, Australia, in January and February of this year (mid-summer for them) you might have been able to relate more easily to the frog story: Temperatures there exceeded 115°F for several days. In India it was worse—in May 2016, temperatures topped out at 123.8°F (an all-time record for India), claiming dozens of lives and melting tarmac on roads in some of the country’s largest cities.
For a farmer, especially one who makes his living growing vegetables for market, it is perhaps easier to register the gradual warming that, according to those who record weather data, absolutely is taking place. The most obvious thing I notice is a longer growing season (the period between the last spring frost and the first frost in the fall). During my 30 years in the business, that period has increased by about three weeks, which, I hesitate to say, has been quite good for us. For one thing, we have high-value, tender crops like tomatoes and basil for noticeably longer. We also benefit in the fall from an extended run of hardier crops like broccoli, kale and cabbage, which can handle moderate frosts but not frigid conditions.
The warmer weather not only has lengthened our growing season but also our marketing season. For the first 10 or 15 years of my farming career, we trucked our produce to the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan twice a week from late May until Thanksgiving, even though the market remained open year-round. For the next 10 years, we kept up our marketing until Christmas. Even then, we often had leftover storage crops like garlic, carrots and potatoes—but we didn’t want to stand in the street and freeze our butts (or more precisely, our hands and feet) to sell them.
Then we noticed that winters, on average, were getting a bit warmer and the winter markets at Union Square appeared to be bustling. Several years ago, we began winter marketing. This past January and February we made it to nine markets. At year’s end, that will definitely boost our bottom line.
In addition to the storage crops, our winter offerings include baby salad greens, planted directly in the ground in two “high tunnels” (like big greenhouses but without heaters or ventilating fans). Even on cold days, the sun’s rays generate enough heat under the tunnels’ plastic covering to keep the plants growing, albeit at a slower rate. Temperatures drop rapidly most nights, but this past January and February they didn’t drop enough to cause lasting damage. Our customers were delighted to buy fresh greens from us in the middle of winter.
So, why should I gripe about climate change and a warmer planet? It’s always been understood that, as this particular global phenomenon unfolds, there will be winners and losers. Let the chips fall where they may, but better in my pocket than someone else’s.
The trouble is, in this case it looks like losers will outnumber winners by a large margin. A world with dwindling resources and a few billion hot and hungry people with not much to lose is frightening to contemplate. Coupled with rising population, competition for ever-smaller slices of the shrinking earthly pie will likely increase. If humanity’s checkered history is any indicator, discontent and conflict will inevitably escalate.
Why, as a nation and at this point in time, we would choose to increase our use of fossil fuel rather than move more aggressively toward renewable energy is hard to fathom. The solar industry is an excellent job creator; it already employs more than twice the number of people as does all forms of coal extraction. Our new president, however, still prefers coal and oil. He has vowed to reverse President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, a project that would lead to a massive increase in the burning of fossil fuel. He has threatened to auction off public lands and off-shore waters for drilling, fracking and coal mining. The non-renewable, extractive energy sector is behind him all the way and is very generous with its support.
Being good stewards of this planet that so generously sustains us is the single most important thing we humans can do; to disregard its health is to disregard our own health and the health of so much other life.
President Trump’s selection of cabinet members reads like a Who’s Who of oil and gas men. Rex Tillerson left his position as CEO of Exxon Mobil to become our new Secretary of State. Rick Perry, one-time governor of Texas and fossil fuel enthusiast, is now our nation’s energy secretary. (He has talked about getting rid of the Department of Energy, viewing it as an impediment to free enterprise.) Scott Pruitt, who has openly stated that he doubts planetary warming is caused by burning fossil fuel (even though some 98 percent of the world’s climate scientists think otherwise), has been chosen to head the Environmental Protection Agency. He spent much of his career as a lawyer advocating for oil and gas companies, often suing the EPA on the industry’s behalf, and appears intent on rolling back carbon dioxide emissions standards for motor vehicles and power plant smokestacks. The president already has issued an executive order to this effect.
More than 100 nations—including the United States—are signatories to the Paris Climate Agreement, which, after years of international negotiations, went into effect in November 2016. This accord represents a major step in recognizing and attempting to combat the reality and risks of a warming planet. Alone, it will not solve all the problems created by our profligate burning of fossil fuel, but it’s the most progressive step the global community has made thus far. President Trump has threatened to withdraw from the Paris deal.
Though warmer temperatures in the Northeast may give me and other farmers a longer growing season, I’d be willing to forego this bonus in the interests of a larger good. To view the Earth merely as a resource to be mined for profit is woefully shortsighted. To my mind, being good stewards of this planet that so generously sustains us is the single most important thing we humans can do; to disregard its health is to disregard our own health and the health of so much other life. It is a dark road to take.