Category Archives: Country

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.


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


Getting graduates agricultural experience in Malawi: an Interview with Sera Gondwe


Sera Gondwe is a faculty member at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources. In November of 2016, Sera and her team launched a 6 months experiential learning program with graduates from LUANAR’s Agribusiness Management bachelors program. In this interview, Sera tells us more about the pilot.

Listen here.