‘The Blueberries Are Cooking on the Vine’

Photo: Blueberry Patch Farm
Blueberries at Blueberry Patch Farm

Small farm looks for ways to adapt to climate change

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For Chuck North, organic farmer and painter at Blueberry Patch Farm in rural Lane County outside Leaburg, disbelieving in climate change is no longer an option for blueberry farmers. 

“It used to be when it got over 100 degrees you would just turn the sprinklers on, but when it gets up to 114, the water acts as a magnifying glass for the heat, which is cooking the blueberries while they’re on the vine,” says North, who lost 10 percent of his harvest last year to heat waves. “It’s awful.”

Small farming operations cannot always afford expensive climate change adaptation installations. Crop disease and weed growth have also been worsened by warming global temperatures, exacerbating the challenge for organic farmers who abstain from the use of chemical herbicides. 

The summer’s heat wave has caused smaller farms, which tend to be organic, to get creative in adapting to climate change. With less financial support to work with, small farming operations have begun testing new ways to water crops, as well as enhance the experience for visitors — the latter being a common source of revenue for small-scale producers. 

Blueberry Patch Farm has begun installing a continual misting system over its 6,000 plants. The installation will cost thousands of dollars, but could provide continuous cool water to berries during summer days. 

While organizations like the Oregon Natural Resource Conservation Service have developed programs to help subsidize climate adaptation, at this point, the farm is absorbing 100% of the system’s cost, North says.

“Other places had done things like this in the past, but we got the idea from the grocery store,” says North, who hopes the misting system will make for a cooler, more enjoyable visitor experience on days when the heat makes going outside uncomfortable. “If it works, we are going to advertise it. Not just for us, but for other smaller farms to get the word out.” 

Other climate-change problems for organic farmers, such as increased weed growth and new plant diseases, don’t have a fix just yet.

“Some of the smaller farms are really struggling,” says North. “ We want to stay on the healthy side of things and not put poison in the earth, and some diseases are hard to control without chemicals.”

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists called global warming “Miracle-Gro for weeds.” An August report from the University of Exeter found climate change will cause “major changes” in the mix of pathogens found in plants. 

Extension economist Bruce Sorte, who co-authored a 2021 economic analysis of the Oregon cultural sector with Oregon State University, says working to find climate change solutions is not the hot-button political issue it once was. 

“In economics, you see no examples of someone in the present giving up for someone in the future. People generally don’t think past their grandchildren’s generation. But now everyone realizes their grandchildren are going to be affected,” says Sorte. “And the cost of addressing climate change falls on a smaller group of folks.” 

Sorte recalls the heated climate debate during 2001 Klamath Falls drought. Working with people on both sides of the political spectrum, he says the debate is less adversarial, since all parties now have an interest in mitigating the effects of climate change. 

Breeding and planting drought-resistant strains is one way organic farmers can adapt. As heat waves get more intense for farmers in California, Sorte expects a wider variety of high-value crops coming to Oregon, further increasing the state’s agricultural profile.

“We’ve always been able to rely on our research to get more harvest per acre. High-value crops are what we are going to see more and more of. Our research is what’s helping us prepare for the impacts of climate change.”

Sorte says the technological farming innovations from institutes like OSU, including drone-delivered pest control, have helped the state prepare for warmer-weather farming. The challenge, he says, is finding ways to distribute the cost of the installations. 

But the rewards could well be worth the investments. If more crops do make their way into Oregon, it could mean an economic boost for rural areas, which have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19’s delta variant. 

“It’s really going to change the landscape of rural communities,“ says Sorte. “Oregon can lead the way on these issues.”

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