By Mark Schapiro, Center for Investigative Reporting
Farmers have always been gamblers, long accustomed to betting on the probabilities of the weather. But for the Napa Valley, where the temperatures have been ideal for the wine industry, the changes could be significant.
“They’re used to rolling the dice every year,” said Stuart Weiss, a conservation biologist and chief scientist at the Creekside Center for Earth Observation, which assists growers and municipalities dealing with the disruptions caused by the changing climate. “Now, though, climate change is stacking the dice.”
Over the next 30 years, Weiss estimates, the temperature in the Napa Valley will rise by 1.8 degrees – an 80 percent jump over previous rates, which were about 1 degree every three decades since temperatures were first recorded in 1896.
He has turned worries about climate change into a business opportunity: His other company, Viticision, consults with growers facing the shifting conditions on their land.
Weiss, who has been studying butterflies since his days at Stanford University, realized eight years ago that what he was learning about the lepidoptera family could be applied to wine grapes.
He noticed that the processes that a caterpillar larva uses to metabolize energy drawn from the sun and water prior to its emergence as a butterfly were similar to how a grapevine metabolizes the same elements before producing a fully formed wine grape.
Now, he consults with wineries dealing with the alterations in sun and water triggered by climate change.
“The verbs are the same,” Weiss said. “It’s just the nouns that have shifted.”
Alterations in the California climate have prompted the insurance industry to start assessing the potential damage and its financial exposure.
The nation’s crop insurance system, a hybrid of private insurers backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency, has been paying out steadily increasing amounts for weather-related damages across the country, according to the Congressional Research Service – from $2.1 billion in 2000 to a record-breaking $12.1 billion last year. This summer’s drought in the Midwest is expected to further catapult insurance payments.
Although it’s difficult to distinguish how many extreme events would have occurred without the atmospheric concentration of CO2, the Risk Management Agency now has identified climate change as one of the major risk factors for U.S. agriculture.
In a 2010 report, it paid particular attention to the vulnerabilities of California, which produces 95 percent of the country’s apricots, almonds, artichokes, figs, kiwis, raisin grapes, olives, cling peaches, dried plums, persimmons, pistachios and walnuts.
“Since the production of these commodities is so concentrated into one geographical area the climatic impacts in these agricultural markets could be profound,” the report concluded.
The agency even suggested an adaptation strategy that sounds very much like the breeding efforts already under way at nurseries across the Central Valley: more research into “drought-tolerant, heat-tolerant, and other crop varieties better suited to the changing conditions.”
The California office of the Risk Management Agency is considering whether year-round farming is a reasonable risk for the agency to assume in the Central and Imperial valleys, where water stresses are intensifying.
In the Central Valley, the agency is considering requiring farmers relying on nonirrigated water to fallow some of their land during the summer months to hedge against potential losses when water supplies fall short.
And last year, the agency withdrew its insurance rating for parts of Imperial County, which it determined was uninsurable for proposed wheat farming due to concerns about the reliability of the water supply.
The high volatility associated with climate change prompted a team of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to found the first insurance company, The Climate Corporation, to focus exclusively on insuring against swings in the weather.
David Friedberg was a corporate development executive at Google before founding the company in San Francisco in 2006, as farmers found themselves at the front lines of climate change.
“Things are getting far more erratic and difficult to predict,” said Friedberg, whose background is in physics and mathematics.
One likely result of the atmospheric tumult, he added, is rising food prices.
“Farmers are having to hedge and pay for insurance claims,” he said. “That increases the price of food, and when they experience losses, we and others pay them for those losses, but that also means their food is not being produced.”
For example, the effects of the Midwest drought this summer, which has devastated food crops for cattle and chicken – mostly corn and soybeans – will be rippling back to California in the form of prices that are 10 to 15 percent higher for beef, milk and poultry, according to the USDA and other analysts.
Wine country climate shake-up
Napa vintners already are feeling the effects of the changing odds. In 2010, the wine industry had one of its worst years on record when days of record-breaking heat in August were followed by a few freakish days of frost.
Weiss, the conservation biologist, cites a map that offers a sobering perspective on future Napa varietals, demonstrating how the increasing heat is triggering the ripening process earlier in the season – from the first week of October, for example, into the third or fourth week of September, which shrinks the timespan for full development of wine grapes.
“You’re ripening earlier in a warmer time of the year under a warmer climate, so you’re getting a double whammy,” he said. Even just a week’s difference, he said, can have an impact on the quality of a cabernet sauvignon.
Jeff Yasui, director of the California office of the Risk Management Agency, said one sign of the growing stress in wine country is that over the past four years, the number of wine grape growers who increased their insurance coverage from the base-level policy – which covers half of all losses – to more substantial, and more expensive, protection increased from 28 percent of all policies to 40 percent this year.
One of Weiss’ clients is Treasury Wine Estates, one of the largest wine companies in Australia, which also owns some 6,000 acres and eight labels – including Beringer Vineyards, Stags’ Leap Winery and Souverain – in Napa and Sonoma counties.
Australia experienced an early taste of climate change in 2009 and 2010, Weiss said, when heat waves and drought led to dramatic drops in yield from shriveled grapevines, leading to significant financial losses for the country’s wine industry.
The national science agency of Australia warns that as the weather gets hotter, the growing season for Australian wines is steadily shrinking – at a rate that’s been accelerating over the past 40 years, a phenomenon similar to that which Weiss has identified in Napa County.
“There are a lot of similarities between Australia and California,” Weiss said, “and if we don’t look to places that have undergone this sort of ‘first shot across the bow’ of the effect of climate change, I think we’d be doing ourselves a disservice.”
From his home office on a rustic road in Menlo Park, shaded by a huge oak tree, Weiss uses sophisticated monitors in the fields to track the increasing amount of sun hitting each grape and attempt to predict how moving a row by a few feet, or adjusting a trellis, might offer protection against the sun’s intensifying rays.
“That’s how climate change is happening,” Weiss said. “Slow but steady increases in heat are already causing disarray in wine country.”
With that information, he’s able to suggest how wineries could move forward. Vineyards generally are productive over 25-year spans; it takes about five years for new vines to start producing grapes, and the vines generally are replaced every 25 to 30 years. Current vines were planted at a time of weather patterns that are now changing.
Many fields are at the end of their 25-year cycle and are about to be replanted. Weiss also offers advice on the varietals most suited to the next quarter-century of changing climate – whether to plant, for example, another crop of cabernet sauvignon, which thrives in cooler climates, or a more heat-tolerant variety like pinot noir, zinfandel or chardonnay.
“With the new cycle, we don’t want to lock in mistakes,” Weiss said.
Cherry crops feel the heat
For a look into the future, consider what’s already happening to the state’s cherry crop.
Last April, the cherries were blooming in the Colombini family orchard in the San Joaquin Valley, their pink and white blossoms a signal that the harvest would be coming in six weeks’ time.
But there was trouble lurking under those delicate blossoms. Jeff Colombini, director of the family company, Lodi Farming, pointed to the erratic blooms on his trees – a blossom here, a blossom there, but many stunted, half-grown blossoms. That is a sign, he said, of the “stresses that come with not enough chill hours.”
Most of the highest-quality cherry varieties in the state are tuned for a November or December chill, which functions to slow down the metabolism of the nascent fruits and thus elongates the ripening process that comes with the onset of warmer weather.
For a perfect California cherry, the trees need 1,200 to 1,400 hours of “chill time.” But Joseph Grant, a UC Cooperative Extension farm adviser based in Stockton, said that lately, cherry growers have been seeing more like 1,000 to 1,100 hours per season.
Another factor may be the fog: Early results from a study at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources suggest that a lack of the usual fog hours also might be contributing to overheating of cherry buds at a time when they need to be shaded from the sun.
“We’re seeing those low-chill effects every year now, as opposed to how we used to see them once every 10 years or so,” Grant said.
While the overall cherry crop recovered late in the season, the overall effect of the shortened chill, according to Grant, is declining quality of California cherries. They’re shrinking in size, and the extended ripening time means the cherries are not as firm. When rains came unexpectedly during harvest time last year, yields dropped in parts of the county by more than half. This year, the Delta Packing Co., based in Lodi, saw another 50 percent drop in cherries from previous years, according to Matt Nowak, a sales representative for the company.
“The lack of chilly nights in the winter makes cherries one of the most vulnerable to climate change,” said David Lobell, a fellow at Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment. Lobell co-wrote a report published last November predicting dramatic declines in cherry yields under a 2-degree warming scenario.
Crop insurance in the red
Until 2000, there was no government-subsidized insurance program for cherry farmers. But that year, according to Yasui, of the Risk Management Agency,farmers began responding to the turbulent weather by requesting that the USDA extend them coverage. Since then, there’s been a steady rise in cherry farmers obtaining climate-related insurance.
Last year, California cherry growers received a record $22.5 million in crop insurance payouts – sending crop insurers into the red. For every $1 paid into the system for cherry policies that year, $1.60 was paid to farmers. The USDA paid out almost $8 million to subsidize the losses.
“What’s happening,” Grant said, “is that the climate here around Stockton is looking more and more like the climate down in Bakersfield.”
Two parallel changes are unfolding at either end of the San Joaquin Valley. The northern cherries, planted decades ago during cooler climactic conditions, now are growing in conditions more like those farther south in Bakersfield.
And specially tailored varieties in the south are being grown in conditions far hotter than the temperatures for which they were bred. A lack of chill in the northern San Joaquin is damaging cherries, while higher temperatures are harming cherries in the southern San Joaquin.
Another consequence of the longer and hotter ripening season, Grant said, is “deformities in the cherry flowers and abnormalities in the fruit.”
Too much time in the sun during the budding process leads to what shoppers regularly encounter: “doubling,” in which two cherries are fused like conjoined twins, and “spurring,” a little raisinlike growth stuck to the side of the fruit.
Those deformities generally weaken the position of California cherries in the marketplace, threatening California’s competitive advantage in producing cherries earlier in the season than in Oregon and Washington – where the climate for the fruit remains ideal.
Cherries’ protracted ripening, according to Colombini, also means that the farm workers whom he and other growers usually hire for a week or so during harvest season must be hired for an extra two or three weeks – which means more payroll and more expensive cherries.
“The problem down the line here in California is that we could see the displacement of an entire industry,” Grant said. “You may have better conditions up north, but Joe Farmer has land here, not in Oregon.”
Ultimately, said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, farmers are “dealing with the changing climate every day.” Wenger raises almonds in the Central Valley.
“Farmers are adaptable,” he said. “If crops aren’t working in one place, they’ll switch crops. Or they’ll move their crops.”