The berry sector is already realizing climate change’s impacts. Here’s how it’s adapting.

Cranberry farmer in North Harwich, Harwich, Massachusetts. Source: Flickr/Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism

Fall means harvest time on Jeffrey LaFleur’s Massachusetts cranberry farm, Mayflower Farm. In the nearly 200-year-long history of US cranberry agriculture, mid-August through early November has always been the time that farmers take to their cranberry marshes and bogs to collect the berries.

For the past few years, however, crops have begun to look a bit different. LaFleur, who’s also the ​​Vice President of Grower Relations at Ocean Spray, told us that he’s seeing “dramatic changes and shifts” in weather and crop yields. Those shifts have meant cranberry farmers have had to tap into their inherent creativity to find innovative ways to battle climate change.

LaFleur, who’s also the ​​Vice President of Grower Relations at Ocean Spray, told us that he’s seeing “dramatic changes and shifts” in weather and crop yields.

A warming world affects crops in disparate ways — its physiological impacts on plants can be complex and vary among crop types, as well as by differing regional and local-level climate changes. Some impacts are universal, though, such as increasing weather volatility, more frequent and severe storms and flooding, longer droughts, and a growing amount of pest proliferation.

But climate change isn’t a future event that will change growing conditions and crop yields. Berries as a category are especially vulnerable to temperature shifts and soil changes, so they’re a test case in how agriculture can adapt to climate change. A 2021 study on blueberries in Maine, for example, found that temperatures have increased in blueberry fields by an average of 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the state as a whole warmed by 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures. One small farmer, Nicholas Lindholm of Blue Hill Berry Company, experienced significant losses this past year because he didn’t have the financial means to irrigate amid warm and dry conditions, according to a local news story.

Berry farmers and companies across berry value chains face two options: adapt to the new set of conditions in the region they’re already in, or diversify growing geographically. For farmers, who are stewards of the land, it’s not an easy decision.

Adapting to new conditions on-farm

For LaFleur, who is one of the 700 farmer-owners of the legendary Ocean Spray cranberry cooperative, adaptation is the right decision. Cranberry farmers that own their own land, and often have for generations, are dedicated to growing their crops, but are finding that they need to make adjustments that continue to improve yields amid potential climate impacts.

Cranberry farmers are combining tried-and-true growing techniques with modern technology, including both on-farm hardware and new software. According to the Washington Post, they’re looking at several options. One is recycling more water during harvest. Another is using sensors for more efficient and targeted irrigation. They’re also considering replacing the ice-dependent cranberry farming practice called “ice sanding” when farmers spread sand on bogs under a top frozen bog layer to stimulate new growth and manage pests, while closely monitoring frost and pests with the help of scientists.

Cranberry bog. Source: Pixabay/djorenstein.

In addition, they’re promoting the breeding of higher-yielding, more climate-resilient cranberries — one of the key adaptation measures in agriculture at large. In addition, Ocean Spray is working with its farmers to make smart investments such as forecasting tools that can reliably predict in-field (or in-bog) yields, so that it can optimize logistics by allocating the right resources, in the right places, at the right time.

Expanding sourcing options for year-round berry varieties

According to Vice President of Categories and Strategy Jason Fung, at the prominent produce company the Oppenheimer Group, also known as Oppy, berries have been “astronomically” growing as a category in retail over the last decade. But recently, “the industry is starting to plateau,” he told us. He noted that ongoing problems such as labor availability, unprecedented weather volatility, and water shortages and poor quality all over the world are threatening berry growing.

For example, in February 2021, Southern California was hit with a huge hail storm which set everything off on a different path, he said. “These kinds of things seem to be more frequent and hard to predict.”

If Oppy gets a shock on the downside, it needs to figure it out with the retailer; if there is a shock on the upside, it needs to push out more food. Luckily, the industry reacts quickly, Fung said.

Oppy’s strategy? Grow more fruit in more places. With offerings ranging from strawberries and blueberries and raspberries to kiwi and apples, the company has embraced geographic diversification.

Strawberries growing in a greenhouse. Source: Pixabay/keem1201.

In order to meet contractual obligations, the group is constantly exploring new regions and new sourcing that — due to changing climate conditions — are able to grow enough berries to feed the world. There are parts of the world that, due to warming, will be better for berry production. For the berry market in particular, maintaining high quality and freshness is key.

Emerging technology can also enable this unique strategy. For example, short-term and long-term forecasting technology provides key decision-making information to optimize production, transport, and distribution. These forecasts can predict yields in regions by crops based on coming climate conditions. It’s a win-win: Oppy will know how much inventory to expect from one area. The company can then arrange logistics for transportation and distribution there.

These forecasting technologies also open up new opportunities for companies like Oppy. They can determine crop suitability and key climatic risks (heat stress, frost risk, pest/disease) by region in the coming weeks, season, and decade, so they know where to invest long-term. These information markers can help companies decide how to optimize breeding, R&D, distribution, sales and marketing, and production efforts accordingly.

“As goes berries, so goes the year,” Fung added.

Oppy has also explored technological solutions such as implementing drone trials for harvest predictions; using robotic carts for grape harvesting; investing in climate-resilient new berry varieties; bringing in shelf-life extension technology; and trialing other emerging forms of climate-tech.

At the high level, it’s difficult to identify the problem and process what the company is trying to solve, Fung mentioned. Oppy instead takes one problem, and finds a solution.

Staying competitive in the berry market is difficult for farmers, co-op members, and berry companies alike, even before climate change threw it off. But by combining tradition with modern technology, the berry supply chain is staying strong. Still, it serves as a warning to other agricultural crops — climate change is disrupting business, and adapting to its impacts is an urgent necessity. Those who move quickly will find themselves ahead of the curve and capture a larger market share.

“As goes berries, so goes the year,” Fung added.

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Accelerating climate resilience in food, water, and energy www.climate.ai

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