Mother Nature is going to extremes, and the challenges that reality brings to fresh produce growers were explored in the Produce Marketing Association’s Virtual Town Hall meeting.
Max Teplitski, chief science officer for PMA, moderated the Aug. 19 event.
“The issue now isn’t so much the climate is changing, but the rate of climate change,” said Randi Johnson, retired U.S. Department of Agriculture official in the agency’s climate change division. “The rate of change is greater than anything we’ve ever seen in the past, so practices which might have been useful in the past may or may not work anymore, because things are changing so much faster.”
Johnson said temperatures and precipitation is changing, and extreme events such as floods, droughts and hurricanes, are increasing. Climate change is affecting chill hours, growing degree days and temperatures during pollination and other variables.
Technology can soften the blow of climate change, panelists said.
For one thing, vertical farms add to the productive food capacity in the U.S., said Matt Barnard, CEO of South San Francisco, Calif.-based vertical farm of Plenty.
“Plenty and other indoor farms are adding to the productive capacity in a world where there’s not another acre left (to plant) in Salinas or in the Yuma Valley,” he said.
Barnard said technology is improving energy efficiency of indoor farms, and Plenty has invested in research to develop its own lights for the indoor facilities. Energy costs, as a percentage of the company’s budget, have declined from more than 70% several years ago to less than 20% today, he said.
Climate-controlled greenhouses don’t depend only on the forces of nature, said Paul Lightfoot, founder and president of New York-based BrightFarms.
“We were founded with the mission of improving the health of the planet, and improving the environmental footprint of our food supply chain is really at the heart of how we think and how we make decisions,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot said greenhouse operations have technology that is sustainable and scalable, comparing the technology favorably over field grown and indoor vertical farms.
“(Greenhouse technology) has been used in Europe for decades, and we grow really high yields and we are able to sell at a price that’s in line with organic lettuce from the field on the West Coast,” he said. “And importantly, the primary source of energy for our plants is the sun, which is free and the definition of sustainable.”
Still, he said, winning with quality and freshness is most important. BrightFarms can deliver its leafy greens to local stores in 24 to 48 hours, while West Coast leafy greens supplies arrive after a week or so.
“Having that one week advantage makes a difference in how the product looks, how it tastes, how long it lasts in a refrigerator, and how happy it makes our consumers,” he said.
The shape of agriculture is changing, panelists said.
“I think that you’re seeing huge changes in food systems and in food behavior, and it’s going to be led by consumers who are really making the connection more between what they eat and their health, and between what they eat and the health of the climate,” Lightfoot said.
Those consumer trends eventually will change the way food is produced, he said.
“I think you will see the Midwest being used less as a factory for grains for both processed foods and for factory cattle operations,” he said.
Regenerative agriculture will become more mainstream and growers will store carbon in soil, practices that will be critical to battling climate change, Lightfoot said.
The type of produce grown in greenhouse will expand, Lightfoot said, but BrightFarms is focused on salads.
“It’s a very big category and there is a lot of room to grow,” he said, adding that strawberries may be an option in the future.
Barnard said leafy greens will continue to dominate for Plenty, but the company plans to include strawberries soon.
Johnson said open-field growers must be willing to adjust.
“It could be that you’re changing your crops, and you realize that a more productive and more valuable crop will now be able to be grown on your fields because of climate change,”
Johnson said “You will be changing your varieties more often as you see the climate change. I see a lot more diversity and a lot more varieties in order to just stay alive.”