What climate change might do to New England

Froma Harrop, syndicated columnist

Maine’s Aroostook County — the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island put together — is way north. Bordering the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick, many of its people identify as Scotch-Irish or Acadians originally from France. Acadians distinguish themselves from the French Canadians headquartered farther west in Quebec. They even have their own flag.

In the 18th century, the British expelled large numbers of Acadians from Canada. Some moved to Maine, and many eventually ended up in Louisiana. The word “Cajun” comes from Acadian. America has more than one bilingual border.

Anyhow, this quiet corner of Maine is potato country, a fact not widely known because of the Idaho and Washington potato industry’s superior organization and marketing skills. It stings Aroostook growers to visit tourist towns along Maine’s coastline and see signs outside restaurants advertising “Maine lobsters and Idaho potatoes.”

“Oftentimes when you tell people, ‘I’m a potato grower from Maine,'” farmer Jay LaJoie told The Wall Street Journal, “‘they’re like, ‘Really? Maine grows potatoes?'”

But as the climate changes, so have the fortunes and profile of Maine’s potato culture. Drought and heat have so stressed potato yields in the West that Maine growers have been called upon to ship their potatoes almost 3,000 miles to french fry processors in Washington state. LaJoie notes that the processors are not keen to advertise this arrangement.

“We are the potato state,” a spokesman for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation declared in defiance of this turn of events. But this might be a foretaste of things to come.

A few years ago, Brian Donahue, an environmental studies professor at Brandeis University, mapped out a future in which New England would become more food independent. About 90% of the region’s food currently comes from elsewhere. Donahue believes that New England could produce half its food by 2060.

This would require turning some forests into cropland, something that’s quite imaginable. Before American farmers abandoned this rocky region for the rich soil of the Midwest, they had denuded large swathes of New England forests to create cropland. But the moment the plows stopped, the trees staged their return.

Now warmer weather could make fruits like peaches, apricots and grapes easier to grow in northern places. New England produces about half its dairy products but could produce all of it if warmer temperatures extend the grazing season, Donahue believes.

Of course, no one seriously envisions growing coffee beans or oranges outside of Boston — and why would anyone want to? It’s true that back in the 18th century, New Englanders grew all their food. It’s also true that a lot of New Englanders died of malnutrition.

But it’s time to question shipping carrots that could easily be grown in one’s backyard from thousands of miles away — especially farms dependent on water from a drying Colorado River.

Parts of New England have themselves suffered drought as well as heavier flooding — another outcome of climate change. They pose their own challenges. Maple syrup production depends on a freeze-and-thaw cycle now being disrupted. Furthermore, warmer weather encourages more pests attacking trees and other crops.

And there are cultural losses. Much of New England has lost its “frozen season” and with it, the winter joy of ice skating on ponds. One does not wish climate stress on anyone.

But warming has brought longer growing seasons to colder parts of the world. And if that leads to beautiful soft rains in early spring — Mainers call it “potato rain” — it could breathe new life into this farming tradition. Who knows? Someday soon the clam shacks along Maine’s rocky coast may boast “Maine lobsters and Maine potatoes.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.


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