Changing climate challenges potato growers, chip makers


By Eric Freedman

Capital News Service

Michigan is the nation’s largest grower of potatoes for chips – about one in four bags sold in the U.S. is made from Michigan potatoes.

Can climate change jeopardize the state’s dominance? Maybe, a new study warns.

That’s because warming temperatures will require more ventilation and refrigeration – and thus higher energy bills – to store potatoes after harvesting and in the spring and early summer before processors need them to make chips.

“Climate change impacts that increase storage costs and reduce the profit margin for growers may render storage a less effective marketing strategy and contribute to seasonal shortages,” according to the study in the journal “Climatic Change.”

The study projected climate for the early, mid and late 21st century for two Michigan potato-growing areas: a northern area in Greenville, Montcalm County, and a southern area in Eau Claire, Berrien County.

Julie Winkler, a Michigan State University climatologist and lead author of the study, said the findings highlight a number of challenges confronting the industry.

For example, many growers store their potatoes only in insulated ventilated facilities, “but if a farmer needs air conditioning, that raises the cost,” she said.

Storage is important to growers’ bottom line because of fluctuating crop prices, the study said.

And it’s important to consumers, processors and exporters because of the need for a sustained supply of chip potatoes.

Another climate change consequence is that potato farming might expand northward, while some southern areas would become less profitable, Winkler said.

And she said there are also implications for breeders who need to develop varieties adapted to warmer temperatures.

Potatoes are big business, with a $554 million statewide impact from sales and jobs in 2014. Chips consume 70 percent of the state’s potato crop, according to the Michigan Potato Industry Commission. Potatoes account for 6 percent of the state’s food processing and agricultural economy.

About 25-30 percent of the U.S. chip stock is grown in Michigan. Montcalm and St. Joseph counties are the state’s top producers.

Michigan has irrigation to grow potatoes and is close to Eastern and Midwestern population centers, so that helps reduce shipping costs, experts say. Its cold climate facilitates the storage necessary for a steady supply of potatoes to processing plants, the study said.

By mid-century the period of “reliably cold storage temperatures during winter” may shrink by 11-17 days in the northern area and by 14-20 days in the southern area. By late in the century, growers could need to provide ventilation or refrigeration for 15-29 days more than the present in the northern area and 31-25 days in the southern area, the study said.

Mike Wenkel, the executive director of the potato commission, said the industry is already addressing the changing climate. For example, breeders are working on newer varieties that can be stored longer.

“The ability for us to have varieties that can store longer will also help with that necessity for refrigeration,” he said. “We will see growers investing in that refrigeration capacity for a multitude of reasons. The variability of climate could play a role in that, but it’s not necessarily the driving force.” Study co-author Todd Forbush is an engineer and vice president of Techmark Inc., a Lansing company that manufactures ventilation systems for potatoes, sugar beets and mushrooms.

“When it comes to climate change, I’m not a doomsayer but I know it’s happening,” he said. “We need to take a real approach rather than a sky-is-falling approach.”

As for the long-term future of Michigan’s current king-of-the-mountain status in the chip potato and potato chip world, he said, “Are we going to hold that position in the face of climate change? Only God knows that stuff. We can speculate.”




By Quinn Zimmerman

In the second part of this series on sustainability in the Michigan dairy industry, Quinn Zimmerman continues her discussion with Brooke Wilke, the farm manager and Howard Straub, the dairy manager at Michigan State’s Kellogg Biological station pasture dairy center. Today, they discuss the advantages of robotic milking and some of the difficulties that come with the use of this technology.

Listen to the interview here.

Sustainability in the Michigan Dairy Industry

Waiting for Milking

By Quinn Zimmerman

In this two part series on sustainability in the Michigan dairy industry, Quinn Zimmerman talks with the Kellogg Biological Station Pasture Dairy Center farm and dairy managers, Brooke Wilke and Howard Straub. In today’s episode, the focus is on economic and social challenges for Michigan dairy farmers. They also discuss ways that consumers can better connect with their local food system.

Listen to the interview here.


Proposed eel farm raises concerns about invasive species




By Eric Freedman
Capital News Service

A proposed aquaculture project could make Michigan the first state to commercially raise African longfin eel, a species native to the Western Indian Ocean and a popular food in Japan, China and South Korea.

A preliminary inquiry to the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has sparked concern about the possibility that the eels, a migratory species, could escape from the proposed facility in St. Johns, north of Lansing, into inland lakes.

As a result, scientists at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have developed a new system to assess risks posed by introduction of the African longfin eel to the Great Lakes region. The evaluation system could also be used the assess risks for other species that have not yet been approved for aquaculture in Michigan.

Although freshwater eels are raised in Europe and Asia, Michigan would be the first state with commercial eel aquaculture if the project from Aqua Vida Aquaculture, based in Florida, comes to fruition.

There’s no comprehensive database of U.S. aquaculture facilities, and each state has its own regulations and laws for them, said Paul Zajicek, the executive director of the National Aquaculture Association. He said he’s unaware of any facilities that raise African longfin eels in the United States.

There’s reason for concern, according to the study published in the journal Management of Biological Invasions, because “aquaculture has increased in importance as a pathway for introduction of aquatic species outside their native ranges. At present, aquaculture is responsible for more international introductions of inland aquatic species than any other cause.”

Among the worries: the eels might carry “alien parasites and diseases” that could infect other species, including the American eel that’s on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species, the study said.

The facility would import wild-caught juvenile eels – elvers – and raise them to market size in about 18 months, according to Kit Munday, Aqua Vide’s founder and managing partner.

The company website says the African longfin eel “is the last remaining temperate eel species with a pristine and unexploited wild population. The sustainable harvest of this species offers considerable opportunity.”

Munday said there’s no risk of the eels escaping or spreading pathogens, including the fact that the facility would recirculate rather than discharge all the water it uses. Pathogens are bacteria, viruses or other disease-causing microorganisms.

“There’s a long history of farming this species. Escapees have never been an issue before,” he said. As for the spread of diseases, he said the facility would be bio-secure to prevent pathogens “getting in from the outside world, whether from nearby farmlands and nearby cities” and to prevent pathogens from getting out.

And if eels were somehow to get out, they couldn’t breed and would die in Michigan’s cold waters, he said. Nor is there a danger of them becoming invasive because ‘if you can’t breed, you can’t become an invasive species.”

To assess possible risks from the African longfin eel, the DNR-Fish & Wildlife Service team consulted six experts on eels and fish health.

“This is using all the available science and expert opinion to help make management decisions,” said DNR fisheries biologist Seth Herbst, one of the authors of the study. “Our main goal is protecting and conserving Michigan’s natural resources.”

According to the study, the outside experts “generally agreed on high probabilities of frequent human and non-human transport” of the eels, given their migratory nature, a history of eels escaping from aquaculture facilities and their ability to survive in poor-quality water.

Nearly all the experts expressed concern about potential introduction of a parasitic worm.

They agreed that the African longfin eel is harmless in terms of toxins and were nearly unanimous that a potential invasion wouldn’t disturb existing fish habitat, according to the study.

All the experts, however, “predicted some effect from predation on native organisms, but not necessarily significant harm” if the eels were to escape, the study said.

The experts concluded that it’s more likely than not that African longfin eels would be invasive if released into the wild “because of the parasite issue,” Herbst said.

Herbst said, “The pathogen risk was the most significant risk,” but if it’s possible to mitigate those risks, the facility could benefit the state economically.

“When you have fully closed systems, recirculating systems with filtration and wastewater treatment, they typically come with very low risk,” he said. He also noted that the proposed site at a St. Johns industrial park isn’t in a major floodplain or close to a major river system that connects to the Great Lakes.

The state has 49 registered aquaculture facilities, but the owners of only about 25 percent of them “are making a living at it,” according to Dan Vogler, the president of the Michigan Aquaculture Association.

Vogler questioned the viability of the proposal, saying, “There’s a lot of experimentation and enthusiasm for new species” to raise, but “in some ways that desire to do a new species all the time can be problematic if we haven’t closed the loop on the lifestyle of species.”

As an example, he compared rainbow trout which have been raised for 150 years “where we are able to do the entire life cycle under controlled circumstances” with yellow perch, where “we’re still struggling to close that life cycle, and most efforts to raise yellow perch for market have failed.”

Vogler also cited difficulties with recirculating systems, which he said have had “very limited success nationwide” in raising fish to food size.

Munday said Aqua Vida is “in the hopefully last throes of fundraising, and we hope to begin construction this year.”

Stephen Hussey, the Agriculture and Rural Development’s aquaculture and poultry program manager, said his department, DNR and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have been working with Aqua Vide on planning for compliance with state requirements.

“We’ve been reviewing this project for over two years now” to test possible requirements and protect against the release of pathogens, he said. The company will need a variety of state permits, culminating with a research permit that is necessary to operate an aquaculture facility for species that aren’t among 75 state-approved fish species such as brown trout, walleye, yellow perch and sturgeon.”

Hussey said state experts would make site visits to the facility three times during construction and then conduct a final pre-licensing inspection before it can operate commercially.

Corn Yield Higher As Temperatures Warm

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By Eric Freedman

Capital News Service

A changing climate has contributed to higher maize yields in Michigan and other Corn Belt states, a new study has found.

It attributes more than one-quarter – 28 percent – of the region’s higher crop yield since 1981 to trends toward overall warmer conditions, cooling of the hottest growing-season temperatures and farmers’ climate-related earlier planting and choice of longer-maturing varieties.

The climate trend accounts for 15 percent of the total yield gain, said lead author Ethan Butler of the University of Minnesota Department of Forest Resources.

Maize is “an important food, feed and fuel crop in the Midwest that is both highly productive and strongly influenced by temperature,” according to the study. It includes corn used as grain for processed food, sweeteners and alcohol, animal feed and ethanol but not sweet corn.

“Recognition that historical improvements in climate suggests that sustaining positive yield trends depends more on climate than previously appreciated,” the study said.

Butler and researchers at the University of California Irvine and Harvard examined U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data for 1981 through 2017 for 12 Corn Belt states, including six in the Great Lakes Basin – Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio and Illinois. The others are Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota.

Butler, a climate ecologist, said it’s the first such study involving the U.S. maize crop

The figures varied among the states, climate and trends in how farmers manage the timing of when their crop is planted and how long it takes to mature.  Combined, they accounted for an average 28-percent increase in yield across the Midwest, according to the study, “Peculiarly Pleasant Weather for U.S. Maize.”

Perhaps the study’s most surprising finding is that the hottest temperatures “have actually cooled” during the past 36 years in the Corn Belt, unlike in other parts of the country, Butler said. That means fewer “killing degree days” in which the crop is exposed to damaging high heat.

Lenawee County is Michigan’s leader in corn production, USDA data shows. Other counties in the top 10 include St. Joseph, Ionia, Allegan and Montcalm.

Overall, the state’s crop is worth more than $1 billion a year, with annual production of about 300 million bushels, according to the Michigan Corn Growers Association.

However, Jim Zook, the association’s executive director, cautioned that the study should be taken “with a grain of salt” because yield has steadily increased since 1936 in the state.

Zook attributes the higher yield primarily to improved technology in the seeds – the kernels –that “protects and enhances” traits that increase yield, as well as to advances in the precision of machinery that farmers use in the field.

And he questioned the study’s assessment that changing temperatures play an important role in higher yields. “We can only plant when ground conditions get over 50 degrees,” he said.

Butler agreed that the majority of the increase is due to non-climatic factors such as better agricultural technology, improved genetic stock and better crop management techniques.

Butler said, “Across the Corn Belt, what farmers have been doing has worked out really well.”

While yield has improved in Michigan, total annual production is down because the state’s farmers have been planting fewer acres since the peak of almost 356 million bushels in 2014, according to the Corn Growers Association website.

The reason is economics, Zook said. When maize prices are low, farmers shift their land to more profitable crops such as wheat, soybeans and dry beans.

The study published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” said continued improvements in yield “are critical to meeting the demands of a growing and more affluent world population.”

But it warned that there’s no guarantee that “beneficial climate trends” will continue and Butler emphasized that the research team’s historical analysis doesn’t speculate about the future. Climate scientists say that a warming climate leads to more frequent extreme weather events.

As the study put it, “Whether historical patterns of adaptation will prove successful under future climate is also unclear. If droughts like those in 1988 and 2012 grow more frequent or intense, they could overwhelm the benefits of planting longer-maturing varieties