In a March 11, 2021 photo, potatoes are examined along a conveyor belt before being loaded into a tractor trailer at the Sackett Potato farm in Mecosta, Mich. For generations, Brian Sackett's family has farmed potatoes that are made into chips. About 25% of the nation's potato chips get their start in Michigan, which historically has had reliably cool air during September harvest and late spring but now is getting warmer temperatures. Photo by Carlos Osorio via AP
In a March 11, 2021 photo, potatoes are examined along a conveyor belt before being loaded into a tractor trailer at the Sackett Potato farm in Mecosta, Mich. For generations, Brian Sackett's family has farmed potatoes that are made into chips. About 25% of the nation's potato chips get their start in Michigan, which historically has had reliably cool air during September harvest and late spring but now is getting warmer temperatures.

Michigan potato farmer Brian Sackett is struggling with warmer winters, showing how climate change is directly impacting our food supply.

MECOSTA, Mich.—About a quarter of the potato chips in America start out in Michigan soil. Brian Sackett’s family has grown potatoes for chipping for generations, and his potatoes wind up in bags across the eastern US.

One reason Michigan is so ideal for chipping potatoes is that September harvests and late springs make for cheap, cool storage of the harvested crop. But climate change has had real effects on Michigan, meaning winters have grown milder, and that means Sackett has had to buy refrigeration units to keep the crop cold. That’s not a cheap solution, he said.

On a recent morning, he explained how this warming winter leads to wasted food, as a front-end loader scooped up piles of plump, light-brown potatoes that would be packed into a tractor trailer for shipment to chip factories.

“Our good, fresh, cool air is getting less all the time, it seems like,” he said. “If we don’t put the necessary energy into storing that product, it could get worse.”

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Warmer Winters and Wild Weather

The warming climate has had impacts around Michigan, impacting everything from lighthouses to our way of life. Farming is no exception to the costs of global warming. And warmer winters aren’t the only symptom of climate change challenging Michigan agriculture.   

“Those especially in our Great Lakes climate are not unfamiliar to unexpected weather events,” Tess Van Gorder, associate agriculture energy policy specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau, told The ‘Gander. “But the changing climate in the Great Lakes is a lot more complex than warmer weather and longer growing seasons.”

For farmers, the greatest enemy presented by global warming in unpredictability. Van Gorder explained that farmers have equipment, knowledge, resources and land to grow what they grow the way it’s grown, and that leaves adapting to change, a challenging prospect, but it’s made all the worse with the variability climate change introduces to farming.

As an example, she highlighted the torrential rains of 2019 and their impact on farmers. One farmer sent the Michigan Farm Bureau pictures of himself kayaking in his fields. 

“That was just a lot for folks to deal with, and also impacts some of the conservation practices that people have on the ground for water quality,” she explained. 

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There are also unexpected frost patterns generated by global climate change. She pointed to a cold snap in May of 2020 that did a lot of damage to crops, as well as the increasing commonality of “false springs” in Michigan which can wreak havoc on perennial crops. 

While it’s too soon to measure the damage, the wild temperature volatility in March and April of 2021 has probably damaged crops in parts of the state already. 

Those cold snaps would be far more useful to Sackett in December and January where they belong. 

The annual period with outdoor air cool enough to store potatoes in Michigan’s primary production area likely will shrink by up to 17 days by mid-century and up to a month by the late 2100s, according to an analysis by Julie Winkler, a Michigan State University geography and climate scientist.

“There’s a big disconnect in our minds about the chain of events between the field and the grocery store and onto our plate,” she said. “Just a few degrees can make all the difference in whether it’s economical to store the fruits and vegetables that we expect to have on our dinner table 365 days a year.”

And without a long-term solution, those trends are destined to change what food is available, and what farmers can keep their livelihoods. 

Changing the Course

Moving the needle on climate is an extremely slow undertaking. For Sackett, the future is probably in refrigeration. An unpredictable flood or cold snap in the next few months caused by climate volatility can’t be prevented. But as Van Gorder explained, farming is a generational industry, and climate change is a generational problem.

In the short term, she said, farmers are doing what they can to adapt. 

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“There’s a lot of interesting ways that folks, when they know that the weather is coming …  they can try and do things to protect their crops,” she explained. “We’ve heard folks up north looking at different orchard trees to plant, different species that are more adaptable and better suited for the climate.”

But, Van Gorder stressed, just rolling with the changing climate isn’t a viable long-term solution. As a result, the Michigan Farm Bureau joined the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance to push for bold policies to confront climate change directly. 

That organization offers specific paths to tailor President Joe Biden’s broader push for a green economy to the food and agriculture industry. That’s already a priority for Biden, as food and agriculture amount to about 10% of the emissions America needs to curb by 2050. 

“Given the level of interest, we really expect the topic to continue gaining momentum,” said Van Gorder. “We’re looking to engage in any of those policy debates happening as discussions move forward.”