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Greg Heilers headshot

Climate Change Could Make This Region the Next California

By Greg Heilers
Climate Change

The mid-Mississippi Delta region is home to 63 million farmed acres, compared to California’s 24.5 million. Yet, according to a recent WWF report, mid-Mississippi Delta region crops are currently valued at $30.2 billion, while California’s farmland generates $45.2 billion. At the same time, experts are calling into question California’s ability to sustain its agricultural dominance in light of decreasing rainfall and snowmelt due to climate change.

Specialty crops explain farming income disparity

A large part of the vast difference between California and mid-Mississippi Delta farmland revenue stems from the difference between the types of crops grown.

If you have ever driven through or flown over the states clustered around the mid-Mississippi Delta, it should come as no surprise that the region’s farms are dominated by commodity row crops such as corn, soy, rice and wheat and cotton. Within this region, which includes parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, and Mississippi, commodity crops cover nearly 75 percent of farm acreage, with only 25 percent allotted to specialty crops. For example, the latest Arkansas Farm Bureau data shows an estimated 15,000 acres of cultivated vegetables, compared to roughly 3.1 million acres of soybeans and 1.3 million acres of rice.

Across the country, California is just the opposite: the WWF report points out that 75 percent of farmland in the Golden State is devoted to raising specialty crops, and only 25 percent producing commodity crops. As a result, California produces one third of all vegetables and two thirds of all fruits and nuts grown in the country.

A backup plan in case more California farms succumb to climate change

To explore possibilities of decreasing reliance on California, and increasing resiliency in other regions, in January 2019, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) kicked off its “The Next California” project. The research project’s focus was on investigating the potential for cultivating more specialty produce across the mid-Mississippi Delta region.

The report examines a key difference in climates, which brings both benefits and detriments. While California’s future water shortages will lead to shrinking farmed acreage, the mid-Mississippi Delta region’s increasingly humid climate will lead to larger crop losses due to pests.

Even so, the report identified several crops either new to or already grown in the region which, if more acres were allotted to them, could increase farmers’ prosperity in the mid-Mississippi Delta. Each of these crops brings its own growing and distribution challenges - among those highlighted were strawberries, sweet potatoes and peas.

One of the factors in determining new crops farmers will consider is human labor. The report identified several key opportunities, including the fact that the region’s populace already has a history with agriculture and the cost of labor is relatively low. In addition, farmers’ fears over tariffs and their impacts on commodity crops’ profitability, plus ample water supplies and a long growing season, suggest that the mid-Mississippi Delta could see a shift in the types of crops that farmers could raise in the near future.

Farmers are curious, yet rightfully cautious

While market conditions play a huge role in determining the makeup of America’s farmlands, ultimately it is the farmer who sows their fields, and their own fates.

As the WWF consulted with farmers, researchers found overall that they recognized the benefits of having a more diverse range of crops in their farmland. At the same time, farmers were not eager to serve as guinea pigs, and proposed that agriculture departments at universities and research farms first conduct widespread testing of new crop varietals.

A major hurdle to converting more acreage to specialty crops lies in the organic sector. With the mid-Mississippi Delta region’s increasing humidity, there will be significant difficulty in not only overcoming those pests, but also preventing drift from chemical sprays, such as dicamba, that farmers often apply to neighboring row crops.

In recent weeks, public focus has increasingly focused on the negative impact of such drift, including a $265 million lawsuit awarded to Bader Farms for permanently damaged peach orchards outside Campbell, Missouri, only 50 miles from the Mississippi River. “As long as dicamba is around, it’s not viable,” Billy Randles, the attorney who represented Bader Farms, said to Reuters as he described what happened to the orchard.

On top of all this, farmers, many of whom already suffer under immense debt, would need to invest in new machinery to grow specialty crops. The report suggested one solution may be to encourage communal purchases of such equipment.

Despite all the challenges, Jason Clay, Senior Vice President of Markets at WWF, sees the report as a conversation starter. “Every country has a California in its food system – a place we’ve relied on for generations to feed millions of people – and none of them are anticipating the impacts of climate change,” said Clay. Moving forward with its second phase of research, the WWF aims to explore solutions, build the foundation for trials, and source market solutions to the challenges facing agriculture in California and across the U.S.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Greg Heilers headshot

Greg Heilers writes on green business and sustainability for private clients and top publications. After graduating from university, he had the privilege to learn from opportunities in France, Palestine, Scotland, Guatemala and the USA. Today, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and enjoys any chance he gets to garden or hike.

Read more stories by Greg Heilers