No, that’s not a typo or a mistake on the CSA box list for this week: peaches are in your boxes today. I actually picked the first one on Saturday, the last day of April.
When we planted our first peach orchard ten years ago, I was excited to see that the nursery offered varieties that they claimed ripened as early as Late May. But the salesman from the nursery told me: “You don’t want to plant any of these early varieties. You’re too far north. You won’t ever get any fruit.” We planted some anyway.
In order to produce ripe peaches by late May, the trees have to start flowering in late February. Because February and March are (were) traditionally cold and wet months in our area, the peach flowers could be exposed to both destructive frost and winter storms. And the bees that pollinate them don’t fly if it’s raining. That is why the early peach varieties have traditionally been grown much farther south in the San Joaquin Valley, where they don’t get much rain and spring comes sooner.
For several years, the salesman’s prediction was correct. We would watch the trees flower profusely each year in late February, only to fall off without making fruit. Then in 2009, we had warm and dry weather while the trees were blooming and they set a crop. Traditional climate patterns returned briefly in 2010 and 2011, with the predicted results.
Beginning in 2012, though, the trees began to bloom earlier and earlier. Harvest came sooner. This year and last, flowers emerged in late January followed by weeks of dry weather that allowed the bees to fly and the fruit to set. And fruit that used to ripen the last week of May now ripens by May Day.
And so, through a combination of blind luck and ignorance, we at Terra Firma managed to end up benefiting from one of the shifts in weather that climate change has thrown our way. But there is always a flip side. In the case of peaches, it is the extra-late ripening varieties that we planted on our farm. Unlike their early cousins, the peaches we harvest in late August need lots of cold weather in the winter to set a good crop. They have clearly suffered from the warm winters the last several years, and 2016 is no exception. So while peach season is starting early this year, it will also end early.
Unfortunately, for most of humanity’s agricultural enterprises, the risks of climate change will likely win out over the benefits — least in the near-term.
Agricultural crop production is based on decades of trial-and-error and an incredible amount of luck. All over the world, societies have made massive public and private investments in crop varieties, timing, infrastructure, professional development and other critical factors in order to create the farming systems that exist. Climate change will render much of this useless in certain areas and require huge shifts in how and where food is grown. In the meantime, food prices and availability could be dramatically affected. A massive new concerted effort will be required to keep humanity fed.