Volatile rains and shifting weather patterns are just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s how climate change plans could fix the woes of Michigan’s agricultural industry.
ANTRIM COUNTY, MI — There’s something greater than the pandemic that Michigan’s cherry farmers are facing.
“A weather event could wreck a portion of a whole industry,” Nels Veliquette, a family cherry farmer told The ‘Gander. “There are different effects that climate has on agriculture, but there’s a safety net being in Michigan.”
Veliquette works as CFO for the Cherry Industrial Administrative Board. The fifth-generation of Michigan farmers is the third generation to earn his livelihood as a cherry farmer. While he acknowledges the changing weather events, he counts himself lucky to be a Michigan farmer.
The safety net helping local farmers? The Great Lakes.
“The climate will change, the things we can grow will change because we have water here,” he said. “Other people will not have that opportunity. You have to have water to grow crops.”
Michigan has been seeing the effects of climate change for at least a generation. According to 2016 EPA information, climate change can lead to increased precipitation and flooding, warmer winters, and the deterioration of air quality in Michigan. There were also predictions for affected agricultural and food systems, and many are beginning to come true.
Cherry farmers have learned to ride the ebbs and flows of the growing seasons and the wholesale industry, but Veliquette added that the typical harsh weather event that he and other farmers had come to expect every decade came early this time around.
“This time it came around early, it’s about the eighth year,” he said. “But this is part of a larger pattern of variability that we’ve been seeing for about 30 years.”
The coronavirus pandemic was just the latest in a tough year that already saw delayed frosts, heavier rains like the EPA predicted in 2016, and competition from other growing powerhouses like Washington and Turkey.
“When you’re talking about any kind of climate change you’re talking about climate variability and things becoming more and more uneven,” Veliquette said.
Tough weather, fairer prices
Michigan yielded a 33-million-pound cherry crop in 2020, compared to the 103-million-pound crop in 2019. With Michigan producing nearly 40% of the nation’s tart cherries, the impact was felt coast to coast, according to the CIAB, the administrative arm of the Federal Marketing Order for US tart cherries.
The 2020 freeze was most damaging in southwest Michigan where Veliquette’s family plants a small portion of crops each year in addition to their main farmland in Antrim County. The region alone usually produces 25-million-pounds of tart cherries annually. That harvest was reduced to less than five million pounds this year.
The boom in production in previous years drove prices down below the $0.25 per pound that Veliquette said is a pricing sweet-spot. The reduced availability of product had driven prices back up, hopefully offsetting the small crop, reported the Traverse City Ticker.
Just before the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Michigan, cherry farmers were battling federal regulations and international competition.
Tariffs on cherry producers in Turkey cut some imports by 80 percent, according to a CIAB report.
The federal government announced they were revoking the tariffs on Jan. 14. In a report on the reversal, the U.S. Commerce Department disputed several claims made by the Dried Tart Cherry Trade Committee, Michigan Radio reported.
“The United States International Trade Commission determines … that an industry in the United States is not materially injured or threatened with material injury by reason of imports of dried tart cherries from Turkey,” the report reads.
Political acknowledgement for Michigan’s agriculture
Local and federal leaders are working to address the immediate problems of Michigan’s agriculture and the more long-standing effects climate change can have on the industry.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) works for more visibility and consideration for Michigan’s cherry farmers in congress, though his efforts have largely been ignored in favor of Turkish trade.
“All they wanted was a chance to compete,” Peters can be heard saying in a currently-airing ad. Cherry farmers like Veliquette agree.
“We want to continue to eat,” Veliquette said. “That’s important. But we do this to keep doing what we love doing, not to get rich.”
Addressing climate change
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also aims to address climate change to protect US agriculture.
“It’s already happening,” Biden said about climate change, using examples of more severe storms and droughts, rising sea levels, warming temperatures, shrinking snow cover, and ice sheets when drafting his clean energy plan.
According to an EPA report, climate change can be traced back to greenhouse gases that trap heat and make the planet warmer.
Greenhouse gases are created by human interference with the planet, with the top contributor being burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.
Biden’s plan says there are better ways to power, heat, and move US cities. His goal is to have 100% clean energy by 2050. He also plans to hold corporations that are serial polluters accountable for their part in damaging the environment.
Veliquette hopes sixth and seventh-generation farmers will not have to brace themselves for catastrophic-level weather events each decade.
“The local restaurant that serves your favorite food can go away, and another one will open up two blocks down,” he said. “But, if the farm that provided all of the restaurants’ food goes away, then there’s no food next year.”