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A farmer adapts to climate change and spreads harvest throughout the year


Higher temperatures and extreme weather caused by climate change are bringing more risks to the traditional farming schedule. WITF's Rachel McDevitt visited one Pennsylvania farmer who's learning to adapt his crop and spread his harvest throughout the year.

RACHEL MCDEVITT, BYLINE: Hugh McPherson reaches up to the branch of a Smoothee gold apple tree and grabs one of the baseball-sized green fruits.

HUGH MCPHERSON: You want to just lift and give a little twist, and it'll pop off of there. And then these are so good, you can just shine them up on your shirt and take a bite.


MCDEVITT: The fifth-generation farmer grew up around these trees in south-central Pennsylvania. His dad planted the first apple orchards about 30 years ago, with varieties like Rome, Stayman and McIntosh. But now McPherson is looking for different varieties.

MCPHERSON: Really, in the last 10 years is when we've strategically been looking at those kind of warmer-season apples.

MCDEVITT: Three decades ago, when winters would get cold and stay cold for months, McIntosh apples did really well here.

MCPHERSON: The McIntosh needs that cold night to put color on it. And in the end, for us, they just started turning soft on the tree. They wouldn't end up getting red and crisp.

MCDEVITT: So McPherson is uprooting the old McIntosh trees and replacing them with newer varieties, like Cosmic Crisp, that don't need such cold weather. The Environmental Protection Agency says the growing season lengthened at three-quarters of weather stations across the country over the last seven decades. The biggest increase has happened in the Northeast and Western United States.

Penn State plant science professor Armen Kemanian says those changes will create some winners and losers in agriculture. For example, farmers who grow feed crops for animals could see a longer season as a positive.

ARMEN KEMANIAN: Some people that produces forage may said, well, maybe I get a longer season to - right? But what will be the distribution of other stresses? How about the precipitation?

MCDEVITT: A warmer world on average doesn't mean warmer all the time. There could be earlier warming in the spring, followed by a cold snap that hurts fruit development, or flooding could delay planting. And Kemanian says the increased chance of extreme weather could bring new risks.

KEMANIAN: So one thing is a hot day. A totally different thing is three hot days in a row, right? That has a lot more impact than a drift in the average temperature.

MCDEVITT: McPherson is trying to guard against severe wet weather. The fall harvest season is huge for his farm's pick-your-own business model and for agritourism activities, like a cornfield maze. A couple of rainy weekends could make a sizable dent in ticket sales. So he's trying to spread risk throughout the year. McPherson says that's led to some surprising crops.

MCPHERSON: So right now we're in the middle of an acre of lavender, which is nearly 2,000 plants with five different varieties to kind of spread out the bloom time.

MCDEVITT: McPherson hosted his first lavender festival this June, when guests could come pick the flowers, arrange their own bouquets and take lots of pictures for Instagram. Besides being photogenic, lavender is drought-tolerant. With climate change, Pennsylvania is expected to see longer periods of drought followed by heavy downpours. McPherson has diversified his offerings to also include sunflowers, blueberries, cherries and even wine. These options give him a safety net to weather the effects of climate change, like a warmer, longer season, droughts, floods and severe storms. If one crop fails, he'll still have a way to survive.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel McDevitt in York County, Penn.


Rachel McDevitt