Combating Climate Change: Creating Climate-resilient Orchards

In my previous post of this Climate Change series, (see the first and second post here), I discussed how tree fruit growers in Michigan are faced with adapting to a “new normal” due to climate change. Pest and disease profiles are shifting, frost dates are less predictable, and precipitation is becoming more erratic. Growers adapt to these changes by implementing management strategies like wind machines and irrigation systems. 

In this final post, I want to convey that while adaptation is necessary, it is far from easy. While solutions like wind machine and irrigation systems are available to growers, both of these management strategies are incredibly expensive. The cost to install a single wind machine is about $30,000. For many farms—especially small farms—this cost is totally restrictive. In addition, there is a question of whether these adaptations will increase orchard resilience to climate change in the future. 

Proactive vs. Reactive Measures

While discussing the strategies for adopting to climate change with Michigan tree fruit growers, I noticed a pattern in the types of adaptations growers were taking or planned to take in the future. I divided the different adaptation activities that growers discussed into two categories: reactive and proactive. Reactive adaptations include measures like wind machines, irrigation, pesticide use, and crop insurance that reduce harm from risks that growers have experienced in the past and are currently experiencing. Unlike reactive adaptation strategies, proactive adaptations take advantage of changing climate and increase orchard resilience to future climate change impacts. Examples would be planting new varieties that fit better in a new climate dynamic, increasing soil health, and crop diversification. These strategies typically take longer to implement and aim to improve the health of the overall orchard system so that the trees will be able to survive certain climate changes in the future.

So, how are Michigan tree fruit growers adapting? Most of the people I interviewed had taken or were planning to make reactive adaptations to their orchards. However, that is not because farmers are unaware of the need for proactive adaptations. In fact, a few growers were already taking these measures, and many I spoke with recognized their importance. The issue is that it’s hard to know exactly how climate change will impact Michigan in the future. True, there are certain trends like earlier springs that have been documented over the past several years. But another aspect of our changing climate is increasingly variable weather, which makes it difficult to predict the weather that each season will bring. One season may be rainier than usual, while the next may be incredibly dry. Growers often opt to choose reactive adaptations as a result, as they can react to the specific needs season by season.

Where do we go from here? It will be necessary for growers to implement proactive measures to increase the climate resilience of orchards in the future, but they need support. One major difficulty I found in my own research was the lack of published research on climate change and perennial agriculture. Research and education will both be necessary to increase support for climate resilience-building measures on orchards.

What can you do?

You can also help by talking to your local farmers about how climate change is impacting their farms. Understand that climate change will affect the food you eat. Your produce may be slightly blemished or misshapen from frost or sun exposure, or you may find that your favorite fruit never hits market stands due to crop loss. Keep supporting farmers when they try out different crops or growing strategies. We can all help our local agricultural systems become more resilient to climate change by building communities that navigate this new normal together.