New science and research has San Joaquin Valley farmers taking a harder look at the effect that climate change may have on their industry.
If researcher's predictions hold true, the Valley's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry will be hit with longer stretches of high temperatures, fewer colder days and shrinking water supplies.
That means potentially lower yields, a loss of revenue and fewer acres farmed.
Farmers and industry leaders say that although there is still skepticism among their ranks, they are doing what they can to stay ahead of the issue, including educating themselves, testing new fruit varieties or investing in water-saving technologies.
"There's a lot of uncertainty about what exactly is going to happen," said Dave Doll, a UC Farm Extension scientist in Merced. "There's a lot of tools available. And if a farmer's doing a good job, he's not going to see much damage. But he's likely going to be spending more per acre."
Yield drops foreseen
Researchers predict that rising temperatures over the next several decades could pinch the yields of some Valley crops, including an 18 percent drop in citrus and a 6 percent drop in grapes.
The early debates about climate change were often mired in politics, or seen by farmers as an agenda pushed by the environmental community. But more credible research has caused many to take the issue more seriously.
Breeders of peaches, plums and nectarines -- major crops in the central San Joaquin Valley -- are keeping climate change in mind as they evaluate varieties in their test trials.
Longtime fruit breeder Glen Bradford in Le Grand paid close attention to varieties of fruit that wilted this summer under a string of days with triple-digit temperatures. The heat caused several test varieties to brown on the inside or become dry and pithy.
"At the same time, we had varieties that came through 109 degrees and did fine," Bradford said. "And those will get a second look. The fact is, if we are going to have consistent climate change, then we are going to have to take that into account as plant breeders."
Others remain unconvinced of a threat.
"I've seen all kinds of weather since I've started farming, and I don't see anything different going on," said Tim Pellissier, a longtime almond, cotton and alfalfa grower in Merced County.
"You set record highs, record lows. There's always a record. Global warming, if it's happening, is happening so gradually it's having no effect on crops around here," Pellissier said.
Some farmers aren't so dismissive. Many are turning to irrigation equipment that is more efficient to maximize would could be a shrinking water supply.
"This has been a warmer year than years past," said Scott Hunter, who farms almond trees south of Atwater. "The almonds are drying out faster than in years past."
"The greatest concern for me is what happens during the rainy seasons," he said. "This last winter was one of the driest winters in history."
Compared with delicate fruits like strawberries and melons, nut trees like almonds will fair better as temperatures rise -- if farmers can get enough water during hot summer months.
And therein lies the rub: Climate change could limit available surface water by shrinking mountain snowpack and disrupting storm patterns that deliver valuable precipitation.
"When you start running short on water and stress increases, you have trouble with any crop," Doll said.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or at email@example.com.
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