In order to understand the local observations of climate change and its potential effects on agrobiodiversity, this project analyzed the climatic observations and management decisions of apple orchardists due to the longevity of apple trees and also their sensitivity to changes in the environment. The research site in western North Carolina was chosen because the central and southern Appalachians contain more documented apple varieties than anywhere else in North America. Results from the research show an even higher level of apple diversity than was previously documented, yet indicated factors such as warming trends and consumer demand may threaten it.
In February of 2011 I had the pleasure of meeting ethnobotanist Dr. Will McClatchey—Vice President and Director of Research at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT)—while he was at UNT delivering a presentation to Dr. Jim Veteto’s Ethnoecology class. Dr. McClatchey and his PhD student Mr. Dave Reedy spoke to the class about their extensive research concerning the folk taxonomy of cider apples in the U.S. and U.K. as well as the growers’ knowledge of cider as a useful water source (Reedy et al 2009; McClatchey & Reedy 2010). After the class, Dr. Veteto and I sat down with Dr. McClatchey and Mr. Reedy to discuss their new international project, entitled “Resilience of European Orchard Systems to Climate Change: Traditional Observations of Managed Ecosystem Dynamics.” As the title suggests, this project analyzes long-term climate observations that orchard managers have made as well as their responses to these observed changes.
The premise of this project relies on a number of important points. First is the understanding that apple orchards are human-engineered ecosystems, and these ecosystems rely on a considerable amount of human management to continue producing. Apple trees are highly sensitive to changes in growing conditions, leading orchard managers to make important decisions about planting varieties they believe will thrive in the current and future conditions. In addition to this, young apple trees take roughly four or five years before they even begin to produce fruit, and orchard managers expect them to produce for anywhere from 20 to 100 years. Because of these characteristics, successful orchard managers are forced to be acute observers of past, present and future climate conditions in order to make informed decisions. An inquiry into orchardists’ management practices has potential to provide a longitudinal understanding of climate change that would be of great benefit to global climate change studies (McClatchey ND). My practicum project was designed in part to provide pilot data for the greater BRIT research project and inform them of venues needing further exploration.
Coincidentally, Dr. Veteto had just helped produce a publication with Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) titled “Place-Based Foods of Appalachia,” in which local Appalachian fruit and vegetable varieties were documented – including 633 distinctly named heirloom or heritage apple varieties (2011). This enormous amount of apple diversity led us to realize the potential of incorporating an Appalachian location into Dr. McClatchey’s greater project. This large amount of apple diversity allows local orchardists to be highly discriminatory when choosing varieties to bring into their orchards. The project also has potential to supplement the RAFT varietal list and evaluate the state of apple diversity in the area. In addition, a large majority of managed apple orchards were introduced to the U.S. on the east coast during the time of colonization, allowing this project to research some of the oldest multi-generational orchards in the U.S. The specific research site in western North Carolina was selected because of the density of apple orchards in the area as well as the potential to utilize Dr. Veteto’s established contacts from his previous research (2008, 2010, 2011).
Climate change poses a serious threat to the sustainability of all agricultural systems, and adapting these systems to a changing climate is imperative to maintain the world’s food supply. The greater purpose of this project is not only to improve the sustainability of local apple production but to work toward sustainable agriculture in general. This practicum project was awarded funding from the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE) because managed ecosystems of long-term, climate-sensitive crops like apple orchards are an ideal place to learn about climatic changes and successful (or unsuccessful) adaptive strategies. Additionally, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports that genetically diverse ecosystems have a greater potential to adapt to climate change (2007), reinforcing the importance of preserving agricultural diversity. The location adds further significance because mountain regions are among the most fragile of all ecosystems (Parish and Funnell 1999). As one of the pioneers in the field of mountain anthropology noted, “Mountains are excellent laboratories for the study of climate variability and societal response” (Rhoades 2007:155). To date, few anthropological climate change studies have incorporated an agrobiodiversity analysis. Due to the abundance of apple varieties in western North Carolina, documenting this diversity and analyzing the management decisions of local apple orchardists has yielded information about the current and future state of this diversity, and therefore offered conclusions about its sustainability.
Staying consistent with Dr. McClatchey’s greater project while addressing the sustainable agriculture interests from SARE, I have produced the following research problem, goal, and questions:
Research Problem: To investigate the climatic changes southern Appalachian orchardists are noticing, their responses to these changes, and the effect of these changes on local apple diversity.
1. What are the heirloom/heritage apple varieties being grown locally?
a. What factors are having an effect on local apple biodiversity?
2. What environmental (weather, pest, disease) changes have the orchardists observed?
a. What environmental changes do the orchardists anticipate?
b. To what do they attribute these changes?
3. How have the orchardists responded to the observed changes?
4. What kind of information do orchardists have access to regarding climate change and what do they consider when planting new varieties of trees?
The nature of this project is interdisciplinary and overlaps multiple domains of research that require attention. The first topic I will discuss is the current state of work being done by climatologists about the evidence of climate variability and anthropogenic climate change. This will establish important definitions of climate-related terms to be used throughout this report. Scientific evidence and public perception regarding climate change will also be provided for the context of my research. I will then discuss the topic of sustainability as it relates to genetic or agricultural diversity and climatic change. Following this will be a summary of related research that has been done in and around the field of anthropology. Climate change has recently become a popular research topic in environmental anthropology as it is an increasingly ominous threat to humans all over the world. Most important for this project are the disciplines of agricultural anthropology, climate and culture studies, and ethnoecology.
A. Climate Variability and Climate Change
With every passing year, season, and extreme weather event, evidence of climate change across the world is mounting and moving from a scientific theory to a cross-cultural reality. By means of unprecedented unanimity, internationally recognized scientists and organizations are gathering and disseminating evidence of increasing global temperatures and the resulting effects on rising sea levels, melting ice, and increasing unpredictability and intensity of extreme weather events. Furthermore, the scientific community overwhelmingly agrees these climate changes are linked to human actions which increase atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide (IPCC 2007a). The following section will describe the scientific consensus regarding climate change, its correlation with human activities, the linkage to recent extreme weather events, issues regarding the public perception of climate change, and finally a short description of recent climatic trends in my western North Carolina research site.
The Historical and Scientific Context
It is important to first note that dealing with climate oscillations is not a new phenomenon. Climate variability has been occurring throughout the history of the world, which all past and present cultures have had to manage. We know the distribution of vegetation has shifted greatly in response to these past climate fluctuations by studying preserved pollen and organic material, among additional proxy data (Aguado and Burt 2013). Many researchers will therefore distinguish between “climate variability” and “climate change,” the latter meaning human induced change and sometimes referred to as “anthropogenic climate change” . Anthropogenic climate change, though, is also something not entirely new. It has been documented that multiple past human civilizations have impacted their regional climates (Orlove 2005), but the problem is that current human activities are now having an impact on global climate. It is the troubling combination of climate variability and global climate change that has contributed to the multitude of environmental problems our world is now facing. One of the world’s leading experts on climate research, Dr. James Hansen, introduced the concept of “climate dice” in 1988 to explain the interaction between climate variability and climate change. He explains that natural variability leads to some warm summers and some cool summers. But as climate change interacts with this variability, the die is now loaded to favor more warm summers. This does not eliminate the possibility of cool summers, but gives greater odds to the possibility of warm summers (Hansen 2012).
In the past several decades climate change research has exploded with multiple varying opinions and explanations as to what is actually happening and what is causing it. In response to the large amount of published research being funded by biased interest groups holding an economic stake in the results , scientists worldwide came together in 1988 to establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. This is the leading international scientific body for the assessment of climate change, established by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization. The IPCC consists of thousands of scientists from 195 countries who voluntarily contribute their independent work for peer-review with the objective of providing rigorous and balanced scientific information to decision makers. Since it was created the IPCC has produced four assessment reports, the most recent being in 2007 with the fifth set to be finalized in 2014 (IPCC 2013).
Scientifically agreed-upon measurements show that global average air and ocean temperatures are warming. This includes warming surface temperatures as well as warming lower- and mid-tropospheric temperatures. Warmer air holds more water vapor, and evidence of increased water vapor content also confirms this warming. The world’s oceans absorb the majority of the added heat to our climate system, and evidence of increasing ocean temperatures to depths of at least 3,000 meters have been confirmed. The warming of seawater causes it to expand, leading to rising sea levels. Also adding to the sea level rise is documented melting mountain glaciers and snow cover in both the northern and southern hemisphere. For many glacial areas this melting is increasing exponentially (IPCC 2007a). Although it is important to note that different ecosystems and geographic areas will experience different climatic changes, the general global warming trend will cause some broad changes. Dry regions are expected to get drier and wet regions expected to get wetter—including increased intensity and frequency of floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events. The rise of sea level and sea temperature are projected to cause mass flooding and increased cyclone frequency as well as intensity, and the melting of snowpack will cause stress on freshwater supplies for many land areas (IPCC 2007b).
Human actions altering the energy balance of the climate system—such as increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols in the atmosphere and changes in land cover—are cited as the causes of the changes mentioned above. Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are the primary greenhouse gasses which have increased markedly as a result of human actions. Carbon dioxide increases are considered to be the most significant (IPCC 2007b). Carbon dioxide concentrations have been linked to fossil fuel use and land-use change such as deforestation, while methane concentrations have most likely increased due to modern agricultural practices. Scientists agree that during the past fifty years “the sum of solar and volcanic forcings would likely have produced cooling” yet the opposite occurred, and this rise in global average temperature over the last fifty years is “very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” (IPCC 2007b: 5). Scientists can point to a similar event roughly 45 to 55 million years ago called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum that was characterized by massive releases of carbon dioxide and methane from multiple sources which led to an unprecedented increase in global temperatures of more than five degrees over a period of about 20,000 years (Aguado and Burt 2013). Compared to our current situation, models predict an increase in anywhere from 1°C in 20 years to 2.5°C in 50 years depending on emission scenarios (Hansen et al. 2012).
Confirming the IPCC’s credibility, recent studies have surveyed researchers from across scientific disciplines and came to the conclusion that roughly 97 percent of the professionals in qualified fields agree with the IPCC’s findings that the global average temperatures have increased in the past 100 years (Lichter 2008; Farnsworth and Lichter 2012). Adding to this, a 2010 survey found that 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree with IPCC’s tenets of anthropogenic climate change (Anderegg et al. 2010). This was based on an earlier survey reporting 84 percent of climate scientists agreed human-induced warming was occurring (Lichter 2008). Scientist and author James L. Powell (2012) recently reported his independent analysis of 13,950 peer-reviewed scientific articles published between January 1991 and November 2012 found only .17 percent of them to clearly reject global warming or support an explanation other than carbon dioxide emissions as the cause. These studies and others confirm that an overwhelming majority of qualified researchers recognize climate change and the role that human actions have played.
Recent Extreme Weather and Climate Change
As scientists across the world work to analyze climate data and produce climate models about what is and what will be happening to the earth’s climatic systems, evidence of climate change may be happening all around us—and this is not exclusive to the warmer global average temperatures. As previously mentioned, scientists expect the occurrence of extreme weather events to increase with climate change. In early 2012 the IPCC produced a special report describing evidence on how “A changing climate leads to changes in frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events” (2012:5). When discussing extreme weather events it is important to distinguish between weather and climate, the latter being long-term patterns that are typically decadal or longer. Because of this distinction, sporadic extreme weather events do not necessarily prove the existence of climate change.
However, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events occurring in the past ten years have led many researchers to cite them as evidence of global climate change. The American Meteorological Association concurs, saying “now it is widely accepted that attribu¬tion statements about individual weather or climate events are possible, provided proper account is taken of the probabilistic nature of attribution” (Peterson et al 2012:1042). Peterson and her colleagues use a similar analogy to Hansen’s “climate dice”: If a baseball player begins taking steroids and afterwards hits on average twenty percent more home runs in a season than in previous seasons, all other things being equal, it is possible to say steroid use increased the probability of the player hitting a home run by twenty percent. This is similar to the relationship between anthropogenic climate change (steroids) and climate variability (the player’s natural ability) (2012). Citing the frequency of extremely hot weather events, Hansen says over the period from 1951 to 1980 these events covered about .1 to .2 percent of the globe. Since 1981 extreme heat weather events now cover about ten percent of the globe (Hansen 2012). In a 2011 publication it was reported that high-temperature records were reported from eighteen countries in the year 2010— which itself was a record, breaking the previous record of high temperatures in fifteen countries set only three years prior (Brown 2011).
Public Perceptions of Climate Change
The IPCC and other leaders in climate science continually produce climate models predicting the dire consequences of our continued use of fossil fuels. These predictions paint concerning pictures for the future of humanity as well as for natural ecosystems. Due to the growing scientific consensus of this reality, many governments have recognized the need to limit emissions. Sadly, only a few countries have made significant progress, and the reality is that global emissions are still increasing and new efforts are being made to greatly expand fossil fuel extraction. One issue needing to be addressed is that, while governmental policies and regulations are of major importance in regulating fossil fuel emissions, fundamental change is doubtful without public support (Hansen et al. In press).
It is logically expected that as acceptance of climate change among professionals solidifies, the general public will follow suit. There are, however, many barriers to the general public’s ability to fully understand and acknowledge the reality of climate change. A 2012 publication from Hansen et al. claims that a perceptive person who experienced the climate from 1951- 1980 should recognize the existence of climate change because, during that time, summers defined as cold occurred around 33 percent of the time, and now occur only ten percent of the time. Conversely, summers defined as hot during that period occurred around 33 percent of the time yet now occur about 75 percent of the time. This study goes on to say that, although this should be a noticeable change in climate over the course of an older person’s lifetime, people have trouble discerning climate change from climate variability. That the natural variability of the local climate is a major barrier to the recognition and acceptance of climate change is of huge significance for winning public support on climate change mitigation efforts. This understanding also plays a major role in interpreting the results of this project, as will be discussed in the findings section.
Perhaps the greatest barrier preventing the public from acknowledging climate change is not their inability to observe it— that will most likely work itself out with a few more years of our current weather patterns— the most critical problem is the continued corporate manipulation of science and public perception. Just as tobacco companies once got away with funding misleading scientific reports and advertising which advanced their political agenda, the world’s largest polluting corporations are hard at work manipulating both the public and policy makers’ perceptions of anthropogenic climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists (2012) issued a publication spelling out the plethora of ways corporations are influencing scientific consensus, policy making, and public perception of environmental and public health issues. Among the issues presented in the report are examples of corporations terminating or withholding research results that threaten their objective, private intimidation or public vilification of scientists, manipulation of study designs for their bias, playing up false uncertainty of scientific consensus, and using various methods to manipulate media attention. Just as frightening and damaging are the examples of corporate influences in the democratic system. The so-called “revolving door” between executive positions in regulated industries and key decision-making positions in the government creates clear financial conflicts of interest, which leads to poor decision making, an erosion of public trust in the government, and a manipulation of the public perception on key issues such as climate change (2012). A PEW Research Center survey published on October 15, 2012 confirms these tactics are working on U.S. citizens: when asked if scientists agree the earth is getting warmer because of human activity, 45 percent of respondents answered yes, 43 percent no, and 12 percent said they did not know.
Further complicating this issue are studies indicating that people’s perceptions of climate change is not necessarily a simple matter of knowing or not knowing the scientific evidence. In regards to individuals who are sufficiently informed, there are psychological and social barriers preventing them from taking action and demanding climate change become a more public issue. Psychologically, people avoid unpleasant emotions and may therefore be less likely to discuss the issue and take action against it (Norgaard 2006a) or they simply do not see climate change as a personal and tangible threat (Lowe and Lorenzoni 2007). Moreover, research in sociology has exposed the presence of what is referred to as socially organized denial. An ethnographic research project in Norway shows how Norwegian reliance on oil for economic prosperity has led many to ignore the issue of climate change (Norgaard 2006b) — a finding of which the U.S. and many other Western nations are most certainly guilty.
Looking at recent surveys conducted regarding American’s perceptions of climate change is useful to complete the context of climate change perceptions. The various surveys ask slightly different questions and produce varying results but are still useful indicators for measuring general American perceptions. To begin with, the PEW Research Center survey in October of 2012 reports that 67 percent of Americans believe there is solid evidence of warming earth temperatures, which is up from 57 percent in 2009. This data seems to be consistent with a 2011 survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which found 65 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening . This same study found that 46 percent of Americans believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities (Leiserowitz et al. 2011), which is slightly higher than the 2012 PEW survey reporting that 42 percent of Americans believe global warming is mostly caused by human activity. These contrast slightly with the 2012 Gallup poll which reported that 53 percent of Americans believe the increase in earth’s temperature over the last century is due to human activities (Saad 2012). These surveys show that close to two-thirds of Americans believe the earth is warming, and that roughly half of Americans believe the warming to be human-induced.
Climate Data for Western North Carolina
The purpose of the preceding literature review was to provide a general outline on the current scientific understanding of global climate change—but as previously mentioned, specific effects of climate change vary across geographic locations. Prior to entering the research site for data collection, I analyzed the local precipitation and temperature data collected by the National Climatic Data Center for climate Division One in North Carolina. Data from climate Division One is aggregated from all stations in the area, which is comprised of the western-most portion of the state where the research participants were located. Monthly data from 1895 through 2011 was obtained (NOAA 2012), organized into four 30 year periods , and analyzed for trends.
With this data I was able to note some general climatic changes. The mean annual precipitation during the current thirty year period is less than the first thirty year period by an inch and a half, down from 55.67 inches per year to 53.98. Perhaps more important than this slight decrease in precipitation, though, is the shifting patterns of monthly precipitation. Over the past 116 years it appears precipitation is shifting away from July and August, the months that were previously among the wettest, toward September and November, the months that were previously among the driest. In general, precipitation in western North Carolina seems to be more evenly dispersed throughout the year than it once was (Figure 1).
Temperature patterns over time appear to have undergone similar changes as precipitation, with a slight overall trend that becomes more obvious in certain months of the year. A mean annual temperature of 54.99 ?F during 1895-1924 has increased to 55.60 ?F for 1985 to 2012. Again, certain months such as April and November show more dramatic trends of increasing temperatures than others (Figures 2 and 3). Although these changes are significant, probably the most revealing evidence supporting anthropogenic climate change is shown in Figure 4, where every mean monthly temperature from the current thirty year period is warmer than the mean monthly temperature from the previous thirty year period. This across-the board temperature increase is slight but it indicates the temperature trends climate scientists expect. Year-round temperature increases with spring and fall showing the greatest changes, coupled with a redistribution of precipitation, can have major effects on apple production in western North Carolina.
B. Agriculture and Diversity
The more we study the history of the earth and its past climatic variability we become fairly confident that the earth itself will endure. We cannot say the same about the species that inhabit the planet. To put this in perspective, one analogy says that at midnight on January 1 of a “cosmic year” the earth was formed. Right now it is midnight exactly one year later, and it was not until about 8:27 pm of this evening (December 31) that human beings first appeared (Aguado and Burt 2013). Humans may be taking the old saying of “bring the house down” a bit too literally on this “cosmic” New Year’s Eve because it is highly unlikely that any other previous earthly life forms have so drastically altered their environment in such a short time span and survived to tell about it. John Bodley describes how the past 100,000 years of socio-cultural system transformations have crossed thresholds to greater complexity but have decreased in longevity: “The more than 50,000-year duration of the tribal world was an order of magnitude longer than the 6,000-year duration of the pre-capitalist imperial world. The commercial world has lasted only a few centuries, but in the past 150 years it has caused unprecedented biosphere degradation” (2008:31).
Anthropologist Ben Orlove suggests that the physical evolution of our human ancestors may be partly due to the requirement to adapt to the more variable climate experienced during the Pleistocene. During that era of extreme climate variability, early human ancestors developed adaptive strategies such as tool-use to ensure their survival. Later, the more stable climate of the Holocene is what allowed the development of agriculture and urban civilization (2005). Acknowledging the comparatively mild climate modern humans are accustomed to, Lester Brown warns:
Agriculture as it exists today has evolved over 11,000 years of rather remarkable climate stability. As a result, world agriculture has evolved to maximize productivity within this climatic regime. With the earth’s climate changing, agriculture will increasingly be out of sync with the climate system that shaped it. (2011:47)
To tie this together, past human cultures have successfully adapted to climate variability, though these populations and the changes they were adapting to were on a much smaller scale. The current rate of climate change is more drastic than ever before, threatening contemporary complex global systems that sustain an exponentially increasing global population. The following will provide a brief overview of the current agricultural world system and the threats climate change pose to it, then point toward ways to create a more sustainable system with an emphasis on the importance of diversity.
Threats to Agricultural Production
Current global agricultural practices and production systems used to feed the growing population, known as industrialized agriculture, is by no means a sustainable system. Climate change will only intensify the problems with this current system. Modern agriculture requires an enormous amount of water— roughly 70 percent of worldwide water-use is for agricultural irrigation (Brown 2011). It also requires enormous amounts of chemical inputs which pollute surrounding ecosystems and waterways, and intensive tillage reduces organic soil matter. Modern agriculture also relies on large amounts of finite natural fossil fuel resources to operate machinery, contributing to the increased greenhouse gas emissions that are proven to cause climate change. In addition, industrialized agriculture has directly influenced the world-wide loss of agricultural biodiversity (Kotschi 2007) by promoting the large-scale use of high-performance hybrid staple and commercial crops, narrowing the genetic base of cultivated plants and leading to the loss of many traditional crops (Nazarea 2005).
The practice of the large-scale cultivation of a single crop is referred to as monocropping and is leading to genetic uniformity. The FAO (1998) has documented how roughly 30 crops provide 90 percent of the world’s calorie intake. Furthermore, wheat (Triticum), rice (Oryza), and maize (Zea mays) alone provide over 50 percent of global plant-derived energy intake (1998). In addition to the declining number of plant species being grown in agriculture, plant breeding and commercial seed modification has reduced genetic diversity within individual species (Kotschi 2010). Examples of crop devastation in agricultural systems that have narrow genetic bases are frightening, such as the case of a blight infestation wiping out half the corn crop in the U.S. South (Rhoades 1991). It was also a blight infestation that caused the infamous Irish potatofamine in the 1840s, which again, would have been much less devastating had there been greater genetic diversity in their fields (Rhoades and Nazarea 1999). It is important to note that the world’s food supply currently relies on a system that promotes monocropping and genetic erosion. Climate change threatens its adaptive capacity and has the potential for serious consequences on the global food supply.
The most obvious threat to agriculture is the increase in temperatures during the growing season. As is evident from the summer 2012 heat wave in the U.S. Midwest, grain yields drop when temperatures climb above an optimal level. For every one degree Celsius rise in temperature above normal you can expect a ten percent decline in grain yields (Brown 2011). Most staple crops are especially vulnerable to heat stress during pollination. It has also been proven that excessive heat can stop photosynthetic activity entirely (Brown 2011). Additionally, as it gets warmer, researchers warn that as evaporation from soils increases, the decomposition of organic matter may accelerate, creating changes not only in soil composition but in weeds, pests, and diseases as well (Kotschi 2007, FAO 2007). A slow rate of increasing temperatures could allow crops to naturally adapt, but some projections of the future temperature increases in certain places show rates to be too quick for natural adaptation (Kotschi 2007).
Other major threats to agricultural systems are related to changes in the water supply. In general, wet places are projected to get wetter and dry places drier, with the patterns of precipitation becoming more irregular (IPCC 2007b). This can lead to crop-devastating droughts or floods. Additionally, as the oceans warm and sea level rises, coastal areas will be at increased risk for flooding and for damaging tropical storms. Increases of these sorts of extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and heat waves will have negative effects on the food supply. A September 2012 OXFAM International report on climate change and the global food supply details how extremes in food prices will accompany the extremes in weather events. The study predicts these sorts of events will create shortages, destabilize markets, and lead to food price spikes (Carty 2012). The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Division anticipates multiple socio-economic impacts of food insecurity, such as reduced marginal GDP from agriculture, fluctuations in world market prices, changes in trade regimes, increasing numbers of people at risk of hunger, and civil unrest (2007).
Agricultural Sustainability and Diversity
John Bodley (2008) attributes the general environmental crisis we are facing to overconsumption, the disruption of natural cycles, and the simplification of ecosystems. He then demonstrates how all three of these disruptive activities are found in our current agricultural system:
Simplification of ecosystems is best exemplified by the industrial factory farm that attempts to remove all but one or two “desirable” species. This process greatly lowers the biological productivity and stability of an ecosystem and can be maintained only at enormous cost in imported energy and by increased use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, which in turn deplete nonrenewable resources and disrupt natural cycles. (2008:51)
While it is true that some documented increases in agricultural productivity can be attributed to using high-yielding varieties, irrigation, and chemical inputs, the detrimental costs to human health, environmental quality, and biodiversity are becoming increasingly recognized and concerning as we face major climatic change (Jackson et al 2007). Because of the complexity of these problems and our dependence on the industrial system for our global food supply, not only do we need to mitigate climate change by taking action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the global agricultural system, but we also need to enhance agroecosystem capacity to adapt to changes in growing conditions (Kotschi 2007).
Very generally, adaptation is the process of a plant, animal, or ecosystem adjusting to changes and overcoming constraints by taking advantage of new opportunities and coping with the consequences of change (Kotschi 2007). FAO’s 2007 report recommends a number of issues to account for in agroecosystems, first of which is the careful selection of locally-adapted crops with resistance to adverse conditions, and considering seasonal changes in sowing dates. They also recommend low-tillage for permanent soil cover to increase organic soil matter and mitigate the effects of floods, droughts, and erosion. In addition, they recommend responsible water resource management and organic agricultural methods.
It was not until recently that discussions about adapting agricultural systems to climate change began to address agricultural biodiversity, or agrobiodiversity. A major point made in the 2007 FAO report and being continually reported by others is that genetically diverse populations and ecosystems have increased resilience and greater potential to adapt to climate change (see Kotschi 2007, 2010; Jackson et al 2007; Frison et al 2011). Many researchers also note that ecosystems with more species and more genetic diversity within species often have higher productivity than simpler systems (Frison et al 2011). This line of thinking can be traced back to Darwin himself, where he wrote in The Origin of Species, “It has been experimentally proved that if a plot of ground be sown with one species of grass, and a similar plot be sown with several distinct genera of grasses, a greater number of plants and a greater weight of dry herbage can thus be raised” (1985:185).
Agrobiodiversity exists at multiple levels including the greater ecosystem where people raise crops, the different varieties and breeds of the crop species, and the genetic variability within each variety or breed (Frison et al 2011). Maintaining a high volume of diversity at all of these levels is beneficial for multiple reasons, and is often referred to as in-situ or on-farm conservation (Nazarea 2005; Kotschi 2007). In contrast with ex-situ conservation strategies which preserve genetic diversity in seed banks, in-situ conservation places the species in the environment and allows it to adapt to the changing environment. Although ex-situ conservation is important, only in-situ conservation allows species to go through the process of adaptation and develop resistance to environmental stresses.
The various benefits of maintaining a high level of agrobiodiversity begin with the old “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” conventional wisdom. Returning to the Irish potato famine, over one million Irish perished because of their over-reliance on two closely related potato varieties (Solanum tuberosum) that were susceptible to late blight (Phytophthora infestans), a disease that is thought to have originated in South America. Farmers in South America have never had such devastation, though, which they probably owe to the fact that the 6-10,000 potato varieties traditionally grown in the area act as a buffer from crisis and give them a much higher probability that some are resistant to late blight (Veteto 2008). This is a prime example of why the maintenance of diversity within a species is essential for food security, but maintaining a diversity of species is also important in mitigating pest, disease, and weather changes. Plant genes contain unique traits such as drought tolerance or resistance to diseases like late blight, and the loss of these genes, called genetic erosion, weakens our ability to ensure global food security and adaptation to climate change (Kotschi 2010). With a large amount of intra and inter species diversity to choose from, farmers are able to select and diffuse varieties with beneficial characteristics, such as crops with specific genes for higher yield or pest resistance.
Due to the domination of modern hybrid and genetically modified crops in our supermarkets and factory-farm fields, it’s important to distinguish these modern varieties from traditional varieties. Traditionally, seeds from a farmer’s best plants were selected to produce the next year’s seed supply. The continual act of saving these prized seeds and growing them from year to year, generation to generation, allows the plants to develop a resistance to local diseases and insects as well as adapt to the local climate and conditions. Seeds that are saved and shared in this way, usually over a long period of time, are considered an heirloom variety (Ashworth 2002). Thousands of these old-timey, regionally adapted food crops in the U.S. are at risk of being lost due to societal changes and a shift toward the modern agricultural system. At risk of being lost is not only the genetic diversity these heirloom crops contain, but also the cultural traditions tied to these crops.
Apples are no exception to the rapid loss of heirloom food crop varieties in the U.S. Modern apple varieties are being bred in agricultural research stations, universities and nurseries across the nation for characteristics that allow them to be sold at supermarkets. These apple varieties are bred for aesthetic beauty, long storage, and sweet flavor for fresh-eating. The leading authority on apples in the American South, Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr., estimates that eighty percent of apples bought today are eaten fresh. That is opposite from the apple market one hundred years ago. In that time, most apples were used for cooking, drying, cider, and vinegar, with only a small percentage being used for fresh-eating (2010). Calhoun’s research has shown that about eighty percent of all documented old-timey southern apples are now extinct, much like all traditional food crops in the U.S.
Not only does biodiversity act as a buffer to potential crop devastation but there are also a number of ways increased agrobiodiversity can enhance ecosystem functioning. This is most likely to happen through the addition of unique or complimentary effects to the agroecosystem, through techniques such as intercropping or using cover crops (Jackson et al 2007). Recognizing the expansion of agricultural land as one of the greatest threats to natural biodiversity, a Millenium Ecosystem Assessment report advises how the maintenance of biodiversity within the surrounding agricultural area is not only an important conservation effort, but it “can also contribute to agricultural productivity and sustainability through the ecosystem services that biodiversity provides (such as through pest control, pollination, soil fertility, protection of water courses against soil erosion, and the removal of excessive nutrients)” (2005:13). A species-rich system is also more likely to survive invasions by non-native species, which is an important trait in an increasingly globalized world. In addition, agroecosystems with high levels of diversity may also attract more beneficial insects and pollinators (MEA 2005). Conversely, there are a number of ways it is possible to utilize agrobiodiversity for pest control, such as insectary strips of trap crops that provide a habitat for natural enemies of pests (Jackson et al 2007).
In spite of the scientific consensus on climate change, the threat it poses to our current agricultural system and the importance of agrobiodiversity, there is no denying the immense difficulty of attaining agricultural sustainability. As the topic continues to gain more needed attention by researchers and citizens alike, it becomes increasingly clear that collaboration is necessary to make any progress. Not only is interdisciplinary research of upmost importance, but so is the need to learn from the experiences of farmers and local populations. The IPCC report on managing the risks of extreme weather events agrees, saying the “Integration of local knowledge with additional scientific and technical knowledge can improve disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation” (2012:15).
C. Anthropological Contributions to Climate Change Studies
Climate change is a global phenomenon with localized effects. No other research discipline is better suited to analyze local populations’ perceptions of climate change and bridge the gap between local and scientific knowledge than anthropology. As climate change issues impact local life across the world, anthropologists’ interest in the issue is growing exponentially. There are a variety of subfields within the discipline that are addressing different aspects of climate change, many of which are important to this research. The following review of anthropological work will discuss case studies and important contributions to culture and climate change studies, agricultural anthropology, and ethnoecology as they relate to this project.
Culture and Climate Change
A topic largely ignored by anthropologists until the 1990s, climate change has grown to become a major current issue with anthropologists from all subfields and specialties. Personal observations of posts to the environmental anthropology e-mail listerv over the past few years show the topic of climate change discussed more than any other. Carla Roncoli, Todd Crane, and Ben Orlove are three leading anthropologists in climate research, and they attribute the growing interest in climate change to the following: irreversible impacts due to climate change are occurring to the people and places anthropologists have traditionally been studying, there is a growing awareness of the importance of researching the human dimensions of climate change, and the recognition of opportunities to participate in interdisciplinary climate change research (2009). Susan Crate’s review of contemporary anthropological engagements in climate and culture divides the research into two general areas—place-based community research, and global negotiations and discourses. More relevant for this practicum project is work under Crate’s first domain, “the documentation of how place-based peoples observe, perceive, and respond to the local effects of global climate change” (2011:179).
Because climate change has traditionally been a field dominated by climate scientists with quantitative methods of research and global scales of analysis, anthropologists have realized their potential to complement this work with localized scales of analysis that are able to address the complexities of human-climate interactions (Magistro and Roncoli 2001). Anthropologists’ use of participant observation and other ethnographic research methods is beneficial for gaining insight into how people perceive climate change through cultural lenses, how they comprehend what they see, how they give value to what they know, and how they respond based on these meanings and values. With this ability to focus on how culture frames the way individuals “perceive, understand, experience, and respond” to features of their world, anthropologists are uniquely suited to study localized climate change issues (Roncoli et al. 2009:87).
There have been a number of anthropological studies that analyze local perceptions of climate change. Pertinent case studies include Anja Byg and Jan Salick’s research with Tibetan villagers (2009), which show the spiritual and moral aspects villagers attach to climate change but also their ability to accept other explanatory models. Byg and Salick reported that local observations of climate change generally agreed with scientific climate data, however their causal explanations varied greatly from material to spiritual causes— similar to my findings to be discussed later. Neeraj Vedwan’s (2006) study of local knowledge and its connection to climate change perceptions among apple growers in the mountains of northwest India is highly relevant to my research, as he demonstrates the way traditional environmental relationships and local knowledge of crop-climate linkages shape their perceptions. The key aspect to understanding perceptions of climate change, Vedwan reports, is the risk and vulnerability inherent in mountain agriculture. Local farmers rely on a range of mountain specificities and are very observant of any changes in these niches.
In Crate’s description of contemporary climate and culture studies, she describes four different foci of place-based community research. Ethnoclimatology is the study of traditional weather pattern predictions in the context of climate change. Studies of resiliency—the second foci—provide insight into how people’s cultural factors play a large role in their adaptive success. The third foci is the physical and sociocultural levels of disaster and displacement, and the fourth is the study of resource management (Crate 2011). Because of relevance to this project’s research goal, further exploration into the topic of resilience will be useful.
The term resilience is most commonly defined as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and re-organize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” (Folke 2006:259). There has been a lot written in ecology on ecosystem resilience while anthropologists have focused their attention on cultural resilience. The more recent integration of the two fields to focus on resilience in social-ecological systems incorporates the notions of adaptation, learning and self-organization, in addition to the basic concept of absorbing disturbance (Folke 2006). A new focus on social-ecological system resilience is due in part because the use of biophysical models to predict ecosystem resilience ignores or downplays the importance of social behaviors in social-ecological resilience. Traditional focus on technologies and large-scale solutions to problems posed by climate change overlook the important role that individuals and cultural values play in adaptation (Nelson et al. 2009). It is important to remember that socially constructed meanings create the frameworks through which possible adaptive pathways are analyzed, evaluated, and prioritized (Crane 2010). The topic of human agency in adaptive strategies is especially important when applied to the context of agriculture, and will be returned to after an introduction to agricultural anthropology.
Though agriculture is a human activity of central importance to a wide diversity of cultural traditions, it was not until the late-1970s that the field of agricultural anthropology became recognized and accepted as a sub-discipline. Anthropological involvement in agriculture had largely gone unnoticed prior to this time. One of the key figures in developing the sub-discipline was Robert Rhoades, who defined it as “the comparative, holistic, and temporal study of the human element in agricultural activity, focusing on the interactions of environment, technology, and culture within local and global food systems” (Rhoades 2005:62). Current involvement in agricultural anthropology has evolved to span a wide range of topics and is conducted under multiple related sub-disciplines. Due to a growing recognition that not only the effects of global climate change vary from region to region but so do cultural interpretations and adaptive responses, there has been an increasing number of anthropologists studying farmer adaptations to climate change.
The work of anthropologist John W. Bennett preceded this interest in farmer adaptation, and while not directly focused on climate change, is significant for research regarding adaptive strategies and sustainability. In his work with U.S. Midwestern Plains farmers, Bennett utilized the concepts of farmer management style and strategy to explain adaptive responses (1969). In this work and others he focused on the process of achieving sustainability in what he called “socionatural” systems— complex systems where physical resources, animal species and human activities interact (1996). Similarly, Paul Richards coined the phrase “agriculture as performance” to convey the human agency involved in the act of agriculture (1989). This perspective views farmers’ activities as being influenced by and reacting to the surrounding social and ecological situations, and it accounts for field-level activities in reaction to weather events as well as gradual shifts in production due to long-term ecologies and cultural histories. Farmers need to be viewed as “innovators, creative technical actors, and socio-cultural actors” in unique and complex socio-ecological systems (Crane et al. 2011:179). This perspective is especially important as modeling technologies are increasingly depended upon for predictions about climate and agroecological systems. These models fail to account for adaptive processes which are social phenomena that extend beyond changing climate conditions (Crane et al. 2011). Viewing farmers as active innovators rather than passive victims to changing conditions is a central aspect of this practicum project.
Research in social-ecological resilience is useful for this project because it shows how important the cultural context is when studying farmer’s adaptive responses to climate change. Crane studied two agropastoralist societies in central Mali (2010), showing the importance of integrating cultural institutions and values into building resilient and adaptive systems. In the northern Great Plains of the U.S., Tori Jennings similarly showed the usefulness of exploring localized responses to global climate change (2002), and Roncoli’s work continues to address issues of local knowledge and adaptation to climate change in Burkina Faso (Roncoli et al. 2001; Roncoli 2006; Roncoli et al. 2009, etc). This practicum project benefits from all of these works that stress local cultural contexts as an important component in agricultural resilience and adaptation to climate change.
Research in agricultural anthropology has an inherently applied nature, having “the practical goal of responsibly applying this knowledge to improve the efficiency and sustainability of food and fiber production” (Rhoades 2005:62). In the context of contemporary climate change, this means using the perspectives and methods of anthropology to study and promote sustainable agricultural practices. Robert Netting was another key figure in the development of agricultural anthropology, and he focused a large amount of work on analyzing the sustainability of smallholder agriculture versus modern industrial agriculture. Using a definition which described a more sustainable agriculture to be one that is relatively more conservative of natural resources, more economically profitable for the farmer and society, and where access to resources and benefits are equally shared by all— including men, women, minorities, and the poor (Cleveland 1998), he opposes the “exclusive application of an industrial model to agriculture because of its technical rigidity, its capital costs and labor savings, its energy inefficiency, its tendency to degrade natural resources, and its separation of ownership, management, and labor” (Netting 1993:320). Recognizing that sustainable agriculture is a human necessity, Cleveland also notes that it is a cultural construct whose achievement is dependent on a greater understanding of the relationship between particular agricultural systems and their environment, humans’ perceptions of this relationship, and how these perceptions affect values, knowledge, and behavior (1998). This notion gives importance to studying traditional agricultural systems and promoting locally-specific adaptations to climate change.
Intimately related to agricultural anthropology and of great importance to this project is the sub-field of ethnoecology. Virginia Nazarea, one of the field’s most well-known proponents, describes it as “a way of looking at the relationship between humans and the natural world that emphasizes the role of cognition in framing behavior” (1999:vii), and as a discipline she describes it as the “investigation of systems of perception, cognition, and the use of the natural environment” (1999: 8-9). The field has undergone a long evolution dating back to Harold Conklin’s work with the Hanunòo in the 1950s, but has essentially kept its focus on local knowledge, perceptions, and classifications of the environment. It has been an important advocate of traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) which is significant for this project because of its application to the conservation of biodiversity and its potential to help adapt local agricultural systems to climate change.
Consistent with agricultural anthropology’s practical goal of applying its knowledge to facilitate positive change in a system, ethnoecology and the study of traditional environmental knowledge has potential to link categories with action plans and environmental perception with resource management practices (Nazarea 2006). In a study on climate change in the Ecuadorian Andes, Rhoades articulates the point that local knowledge is essential for climate change adaptation, saying:
Our assumption is that by understanding local people’s awareness of weather and climatic change, we can also understand better their decision making and local adaptations to global change…Logically, farmers’ local knowledge forms the basis of decision making and it should be incorporated into any strategy meant to mitigate the impact of climate change. (2008:47)
With its focus on perceptions and use of the natural environment, ethnoecology allows researchers to understand and incorporate traditional knowledge into adaptive strategies. Researchers in this context need to be careful not to reproduce the artificial division between TEK and scientific knowledge and remember that all knowledge is socially constructed. When properly handled, community-based research with indigenous groups has proven the effectiveness of integrating different sources of climate change knowledge for the development of mitigation and adaptation strategies (Peterson and Broad 2009).
Ethnoecology and its study of local knowledge can be highly beneficial for the conservation of biodiversity. Local knowledge serves as a repository for alternative choices that keep cultural and biological diversity alive (Nazarea 2006). Furthermore, recent ethnoecological studies of crop diversity in western North Carolina show high levels of agrobiodiversity due to material conditions and cultural preferences (Veteto 2008, 2010, 2012; Veteto et al. 2011). Because of globalization, local ethnoecologies in Appalachia and elsewhere are being challenged, transformed, and replaced with two modern ethnoecologies: environmentalism and developmentalism. Environmentalism is the general concern with the depletion of natural resources and has grown from an opposition to developmentalism, which was born out of the ideals of industrialism, progress, and consumption (Kottak 2006). At the intersection of these three ethnoecologies comes the new ethnoecological model of sustainable development, created to mediate between them and produce “culturally appropriate, ecologically sensitive, self-regenerating change” (Kottak 2006:43).
It is essentially at this intersection, in the use of the ethnoecological model of sustainable development, where Paul Sillitoe describes the number of ways the fields of ethnobiology (or in our case, ethnoecology) and applied anthropology can unite. He describes these two fields as traditionally illustrating the ‘pure’ and the ‘practical,’ and a fusion of the two produces an applied environmental anthropology that works bottom-up in studying TEK systems and how they connect to increasing scales and complexity. Among others, Sillitoe suggests productive avenues for this fusion through facilitating indigenous use of scientific knowledge or the scientific use of indigenous knowledge in the development setting (2006). This sort of knowledge exchange is useful for the conservation of biodiversity and the development of sustainable agriculture. Sillitoe warns, though, that engagement with development and specifically the empowering of local communities to use their traditional knowledge in development creates political confrontations:
Involvement in the promotion of such counter-development implies engagement in global politics. The problem is making alternative views heard. Current global political arrangements make this doubtful, and, even if heard, they may be construed by the powerful as inimical to the world order. (2006:135)
Evaluating the political environment of the local and global context is an important aspect of achieving sustainable development. Political context not only creates a difficult setting for alternative views to be heard, but it also shapes local knowledge and a perception of what is important and desirable. The field of political ecology would be a useful field for incorporating the political context, though it is outside the scope of this research project.
D. Research Site Context
Now that an overview has been presented on the intersection of climate change, agriculture, and anthropology, it is necessary to describe the ecological and social setting where this research was conducted. The generally accepted geographical boundary definition of southern Appalachia continues to shift over time—once consisting of 254 counties in nine states, then 190 counties in seven states, and more recently 152 counties in eight states (Davis 2000). In the western area of the region lies the Cumberland Plateau which contains a series of high mountain plateaus that subdivide into hundreds of smaller plateaus. East of this is the Ridge and Valley physiographic province, comprised of parallel ridges stretching for almost a hundred miles. Finally, the far eastern region of the southern Appalachian Mountains contains the Blue Ridge Mountains which are the highest in the eastern United States (Davis 2000). They stretch from southern Virginia at the New River divide down to northern Georgia, blanketing the westernmost region of North Carolina (Gragson and Bolstad 2006). The apple orchardists who participated in this research project reside throughout ten counties in the western North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a region well-suited for growing apples (shown in Figures 5 and 6).
The Blue Ridge Belt is as narrow as ten to sixteen miles wide in Virginia, but widens to form a high plateau seventy miles across in western North Carolina. This plateau contains Mount Mitchell at 6,684 feet in elevation, the highest point in the eastern United States, but tapers down to around three thousand feet as it goes south (Beaver 1984). As a result of regional changes in elevation, topography, and thermal belts; variation in rainfall, temperature, and vegetation create a diverse ecological landscape. Temperatures are warmer in the lower regions, precipitation averages an abundant 1,600 mm a year with typically more in higher elevations, and microclimates with related soil types vary greatly from ridge tops to lower stream valleys. Though predominately a temperate deciduous forest, varying ecological characteristics allow the region to contain both northern and southern taxa resulting in one of the most biodiverse regions in North America (Gragson et al. 2008).
The sociocultural history of the southern Appalachians is long and complicated but is important background information for this research, especially as it relates to agriculture. The earliest residents of the region were Native American groups who inhabited the region for approximately four thousand years—predominately in the historical period by the Cherokee. Europeans began to make expeditions through the mountains as early as 1540 when Hernando de Soto and other Spaniards came in search for gold (Beaver 1984). Soon the French and British followed, and through the overexploitation of fur and wild game the Cherokee and early settlers became more dependent on agriculture. Through the 1800s the population was a mixture of Cherokees, Europeans, and Africans who developed a way of life based on subsistence agriculture, but the federal government authorized the removal of most of the remaining Cherokee to western lands by the end of the 1830’s. Not long after, mining for lead, salt, gold, oil, gas, and coal accompanied logging as booming industries bringing rapid population increases and changes (Lewis 1984). Today coal mining is still the dominant industry in many parts of Appalachia, which has played a key role in the cultural identity for many families.
Early populations in the southern Appalachian Mountains included the Cherokee, Scots-Irish, German, English, and Scandinavian groups who all brought with them unique agricultural traditions. Many of these traditions borrowed or adopted various methods and crops from one-another and the area remained mostly small and subsistence-oriented farms. In fact, in 1880, Appalachia had a greater concentration of noncommercial family farms than anywhere else in the U.S. (Veteto 2008). This small scale farming system coupled with specific mountain ecosystem characteristics allowed local farms to breed particular varieties of crops and make Southern Appalachia a region especially rich in agrobiodiversity (Davis 2000). As recently as 2000, however, studies show less than two percent of the population listed agriculture as their primary occupation (Gragson and Bolsted 2006). Fortunately, contemporary studies in the Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounding Appalachians have confirmed that the area has maintained a high level of crop diversity relative to other southern regions, most likely due to the combination of geographic and commercial isolation, difficult and diverse growing conditions, and especially the importance of local crop varieties to Appalachian cultural identity (Veteto 2008, 2010, Veteto et al. 2011, Veteto 2012).
It presently appears that apple growing has followed this same pattern of declining as an occupation yet still maintaining its high levels of traditional diversity. While there are hundreds of southern apple varieties that have been lost and may never be found, central and southern Appalachia is still one of the most apple diverse regions in North America (Veteto et al. 2011). Apple production in North Carolina during the 1980s produced an average of 308 million pounds per year, which decreased by almost thirty percent during 1990s, and again decreased by thirty percent during the 2000s (USDA 2011). During these same time periods North Carolina’s yield per apple bearing area stayed roughly the same, leading to the conclusion that the productivity has not declined, but the number of farms has.
Although many orchards in western North Carolina date back over one to two hundred years, it was not until the mid-1900s that the number of orchards increased dramatically. The Blue Ridge Apple Growers Association was formed in 1936 and continues to be a major organization today (Blue Ridge Farm Direct Market Association 2013). Stemming from a realization that the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina contained excellent apple growing conditions, demand for wholesale, fresh-market, processing, and juice apples grew exponentially. Packing houses began popping up all over the region, and from the 1940s through the 1970s the apple industry was booming. Major companies such as Gerber, Seneca, National Fruit Company, and Musselmans opened up processing plants and as the industry expanded, apples became a part of many communities’ cultural identity. Strolling through such an apple growing community you would commonly see the word ‘apple’ or a picture of an apple on a sign out front of a local business such as restaurants, hotels, car dealerships, and real estate agents. In 1947, the first North Carolina Apple Festival was held, and 66 years later it is still a major annual event in western North Carolina (Blue Ridge Farm Direct Market Association 2013). Though apples are still a prominent cultural symbol in the area, the industry has changed dramatically over this time. At its height in 1976 there were 328 orchards in North Carolina and by 2006 there were only 117. Processing plants shut down, apple growing land was lost to urban sprawl, technological innovations were made, international competition drove prices down, and as the apple industry changed, many producers were bought up or put out of business (Blue Ridge Farm Direct Market Association 2013).
- Figure 2: Mean temperature in April, 1895 – 2011 for climate division 1 in North Carolina
- Figure 3: Mean temperature in November, 1895 – 2011 for climate division 1 in North Carolina
- Figure 4: Mean monthly temperature for climate division 1 in North Carolina
- Figure 5: Map of Appalachian region highlighting research area
- Figure 6: Map of research area highlighting 10 counties where research was conducted
- Figure 1: Mean monthly precipitation for climate division 1 in North Carolina
1. Determine what climactic changes orchard managers have observed and experienced, and what changes they anticipate for the future.
2. Determine what strategies orchard managers are using in response to these observations, and evaluate the effects these changes have on the orchard systems and local apple diversity.
From inception to the dissemination of results, this research project has spanned roughly two years, from the spring of 2011 to the spring of 2013. I first met the client and discussed the possibility of this project in the spring of 2011, which was followed by preliminary reviews of related literature and the drafting of a tentative research proposal. In the summer of 2011 I submitted a proposal to the USDA Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program for project funding, which was awarded in the fall of 2011. In the spring of 2012 I finalized the research proposal with my client and received project committee approval. At this point the research instruments were drafted to best address the research problem. I then filed the necessary materials to the University of North Texas Internal Review Board, which approved the project in April 2012. At the end of May 2012 I entered the field and began participant observation, observation, and the recruitment of participants, which continued throughout my time spent in the field. As participants were recruited they were administered surveys and in-depth interviews. This data collection was performed during the months of June, July, and August. Data entry such as the transcription of interviews began while in the field, as time and resources permitted, continued when I returned to the University of North Texas, and lasted into October of 2012. At this point I began the data analysis which was followed by the drafting of reports on project findings. In May of 2013 the research was presented to UNT, BRIT, and SARE, as described in the deliverables section of this report. Some of the research findings are also being presented at the Society of Ethnobiology’s National conference in May 2013.
Due to the orchardist managers’ busy daily routine during the summer months, recruiting for this project was done by a combination of convenience and snowball sampling methods. Prior to entering the field I generated a list of apple orchards, apple houses, and roadside stands found on various online public orchard directories, such as orangepippin.com. I organized the list according to county to ensure no single county was over or underrepresented according to its number of orchardists. Some counties have a greater number of orchards and therefore were recruited more heavily, such as Henderson County.
I began recruitment by calling phone numbers listed online and found a very low response rate using this method. I then began travelling to the orchards, roadsides stands, and apple houses to recruit participants face-to-face. Though I wasn’t able to offer any monetary incentives in exchange for the orchardists’ time, I provided each participant with a copy of the RAFT publication “Place-Based Foods of Appalachia” described in the Project Description section of this report. Using the list of 633 heritage and heirloom apple varieties in this publication was useful for explaining my research interests to the orchardists, and most of them were genuinely pleased to receive a copy. As I began conducting interviews I would ask the growers about other orchardists they knew and if I could have their contact information. Many orchardists seemed more willing to participate if they knew someone I had already interviewed. I also found better response rates by modifying the introductory recruitment statement to be less formal and exclude words such as “research” or “climate change.”
This project uses a mixed methods approach utilizing both quantitative and qualitative techniques in order to explore and explain the complexities of perceptions, practices, and their effects on apple diversity. Mixed methods are beneficial when the topic under investigation is largely undocumented, such as the complex decision making process of farmers who cultivate long-term crops in a changing climate. Due to constraints encountered in the field, the original project design was modified in order to increase informant participation . The main methods of data collection were observation and participant observation as well as surveys and in-depth interviews.
Observation should ideally accompany any self-reported data in order to triangulate findings, as observation can illuminate differences between what people say and what they actually do. Observation at the beginning of the project exposes the researcher to routine activities in the community and is an important part of the learning process (Schensul et al 1999). Observation can also provide a framework for how orchardists think about climate change and crop maintenance, how they talk about it, and what their worries or concerns are. Upon entering the region I began visiting apple orchards, roadside stands, farmers markets, and country stores throughout the area. At these locations I interacted with community members and orchard workers, gaining a familiarity with the culture and developing a rapport with the locals. These interactions and informal interviews continued throughout the entire data collection process, which not only aided in identifying potential participants but also allowed me to gain the experiential knowledge necessary for natural interaction with the community (Bernard 2002).
Adding further depth to these observations and interactions, I secured a position as live-in farm intern on a farm in the South Toe Valley of Yancey County, right in the heart of the research area. In exchange for lodging and a small stipend, I tended a one acre vegetable garden and managed turkeys, chickens, sheep, a goat, and a milking cow. The experience of living as a farmer while researching farmers provided cultural experiences that allowed the establishment of deeper relationships with informants that would not have otherwise been possible. This is very much like the near-total immersion of an ethnographer in an unfamiliar community—the traditional definition of participant observation and the hallmark tool for anthropologists (Schensul et al 1999). The experiences gained working on the farm and living among other farmers were excellent icebreakers and conversation points with community members and key informants alike. Relationships established through the farm and the small community in which it was situated provided an instant network of informants I was able to rely on and build upon throughout the time in the field.
Survey and Interview
Survey and in-depth interview data provided the bulk of the information gathered for this project. Prior to entering the field I developed a survey to gather quantitative data as well as an interview guide to follow up on the survey with qualitative data. Due to the circumstances these two instruments were combined to collect both quantitative and qualitative data within one interview . In total, I conducted these interviews with twenty-two key informants. Key informants were defined as the individual on the orchard who is the main senior decision-maker, most often the orchard manager. Each interview consisted of multiple closed-ended survey questions eliciting quantitative data about the orchard and orchardist such as number of varieties being grown, number of acres of apple trees, amount of time the orchardist has been growing apples, and the amount of time the orchard has been in operation. The in-depth open-ended interview questions were designed to provide information on what observations orchardists’ have made regarding the growing conditions, what indicators they use for these observations, how and why orchardists make management decisions, and many other topics pertaining to the research problem. The interviews were guided by the main research questions but were not limited to them, and quite often an orchardist would volunteer relevant information that was not a part of the research agenda. Some interviews would last only thirty minutes while others were over three hours. I was granted permission to audio record twenty of the twenty-two interviews. Following each interview I would collect demographic information from the orchardist using a socio-economic survey . As part of the informed consent process I informed the participant that he or she did not have to answer anything they weren’t comfortable with, and they were given the option to fill it out themselves or have me ask the questions.
Data collected from the mixed-methods interviews were audio recorded, and with my accompanying notes and observations, were transcribed and entered into the qualitative data analysis program Atlas.ti. The quantitative data obtained through the survey was also entered separately into MS Excel for basic quantitative analysis. This process began while I was still in the field, and while some preliminary transcriptions and data analysis occurred in the field, the majority of the data analysis was completed after I finished all data collection procedures and departed the field site.
Once transcribed and entered into Atlas.ti, the analysis and coding was guided by grounded theory methodology in order to identify key concepts, themes, and relationships in the data. As Bernard (2002) describes it, using grounded-theory approach requires the identification of analytic categories or themes that come up, comparing the categories with an emphasis on how they are linked together, and then using the relations among categories to build theoretical models. Using Atlas.ti, I was able to read through the interviews and build a strong list of general codes (a codesheet) that encompass all aspects of the research goal. All of the data was then coded in Atlas.ti using these codes.
Each code was then selected for further analysis “by hand.” As an example, the initial Atlas.ti code “diseases” (meaning any discussion of fungi, rots, or diseases) was selected out and hand-coded to distinguish between mentions of “fire blight” (Erwinia amylovora), “apple scab” (Venturia inaequalis), “worse in general,” “varies yearly” and other pertinent disease-related information. By starting with general codes in Atlas.ti and doing further analysis by hand I was able to identify trends and themes within the general codes. Furthermore, I utilized the Atlas.ti’s Document Families tool to create demographic factors with which to further analyze these trends according to demographic data. For instance, I was able to use Atlas.ti to obtain the “climate opinion” (a general code) of growers “65 years or older” (document family), versus growers “64 years or younger” (document family). Utilizing demographic information to further analyze the research findings revealed a great amount of useful information. The findings obtained from my analysis are detailed in the following section as it pertains to the project’s research questions.
This project was intended to address the broad issue of agricultural sustainability as it relates to climate change. Focusing this intention specifically on apples and apple growers in a region of the United States that is especially rich in diversity, I was able to situate my goal into a manageable research project. Even so, I started with a number of research questions, gathered a large amount of data, and have produced more findings than this space permits me to describe. This section will detail the research findings most relevant to my goal in the following order: the demographic characteristics of the research participants; the past and current state of local apple diversity; the environmental changes observed and anticipated by the orchardists; their responses to these observed changes; the orchardists’ perceptions regarding the source of their observed changes; and finally a summary of the effects these changes have on apple diversity.
The research sample for this project included twenty-two individuals who currently grow apples in western North Carolina. The participants’ all own and/or manage an apple orchard in one of the ten North Carolina counties shown on page twenty-four of this report. Each one of the orchardists interviewed is the senior-most decision maker on their orchard. These research participants are scattered across western North Carolina in the previously mentioned ten counties, and while most share a common cultural background, there are many important demographic factors to consider for this research.
To begin, there were a number of demographic characteristics a majority of the orchardists had in common with one-another. Aside from two orchardists who were born in Florida, the other twenty participants were born in the area . Of those who responded, fifty-six percent cited their religion as Baptist, seventeen percent cited “none,” eleven percent cited Lutheran, and Presbyterian, Protestant and Episcopalian each accounted for five percent (Figure 7). As for political affiliation, forty-five percent cited Republican, eighteen percent Democrat, eighteen percent Independent, fourteen percent chose not to answer, and five percent cited “other” (Figure 8). Three of the orchardists were female (14 percent), eighteen of them were male (82 percent), and one interview was with a husband and wife team. The average age of the orchardists was sixty-two, with the youngest being forty and the oldest being eighty. All of the orchardists had at least a high school education, with ten orchardists having only a high school education. Four orchardists had some college education, six had a Bachelors degree, one had a Masters degree, and one had a PhD. All were Caucasian with various European ancestry. Generalizing with these characteristics, one would describe the typical western North Carolina apple orchardist interviewed in this study as a 62 year-old white male with a high school education who is Baptist, Republican, and from the local area.
Seven orchardists chose not to disclose their approximate annual income, but a wide range of incomes were found for the remaining fifteen (see Figure 9). Interestingly, only five of the orchardists are first-generation growers—meaning they are the first in their family to grow apples. Of these first-generation growers, twenty years was the least and fifty-two was the most experience growing apples. There were nine second-generation growers, three third-generation growers, three fourth-generation growers, and two fifth-generation growers (Figure 10). Though data was not specifically collected with every participant, it is reasonable to believe most of the multiple-generation orchardists have spent the majority of their lives working on the orchard. All of these grower characteristics were important to consider when analyzing the data for similarities in perceptions and responses to changing growing conditions.
Not only are the varying demographics of the orchardists important for this research, but so are the varying characteristics of their orchards. As described in the context section, one major reason western North Carolina and the greater southern Appalachians are rich in diversity is due to the many microclimates found in the area. Of the ten counties where the orchardists grow apples, all ten vary in elevation, which proved to have a large influence on apple growing. Elevation differences affect apple growing conditions due to the varying amount of freezing hours, length of growing season, and temperatures found at the different elevations. Certain apple varieties do better or worse as these characteristics change. Data on orchard elevation was collected when it was known, and where it was not known the GPS coordinates were entered into the global mapping software Google Earth to find estimates. Orchards in Alexander and Wilkes counties—what is known as the Brushy Mountain area—were among the lowest in elevation at roughly thirteen hundred feet in elevation. In the Henderson County area where the highest density of apple orchards are found, the elevation was fairly consistent at just over two thousand feet but included one orchard at twenty-nine hundred feet; the orchards in Watauga, Avery, Mitchell, Yancey, McDowell, and Haywood counties ranged from twenty-seven to thirty-four thousand feet; Ashe County had the highest elevation at around thirty-six to thirty-nine hundred feet.
This project was intended to build on the research conducted for RAFT’s “Place-Based Foods of Appalachia” publication (Veteto et al. 2011), which recognized the central/southern Appalachian region as having the highest existing diversity of food crops in the U.S., Canada, and Northern Mexico. The fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains in the RAFT publication were divided into two groups: heritage varieties and heirloom varieties. Heritage varieties were described as “historically available commercially from nurseries,” while heirloom varieties were “named and passed along in Appalachian communities.” Of the 633 distinctly-named apple varieties, 280 were heritage varieties and 353 were considered heirloom (Veteto et al. 2011). For the purpose of my research project, making a distinction between these two groups was not necessary. The major distinction I made was between commercially available varieties that were relatively recent introductions to the apple market, and “old-timey” varieties that had a history of being grown in the region for a long period of time. These older varieties were referred to by myself and the locals as heirloom, heritage, antique, or old-timey varieties .
Most often an apple variety would be mentioned, such as ‘Sir Prize’ (Malus pumila), and I would ask, “Is that an heirloom?” In this case, the orchardist would say something like, “No, that came outta Purdue. It’s in the Golden Delicious family.” Because there is no definitive definition of what makes an apple variety heirloom, I had to use my best judgment. Southern apple expert Lee Calhoun uses the date 1928 as a distinctive line, citing this date because of changes that took place at that time in how orchards were planted and apples were bred (2010). I always took the grower’s classification as valid, but I generally view apples developed by plant breeders after the mid 1900s to be modern varieties—though in most cases the date of origin is unknown. The Sir Prize, for instance, was developed by Purdue in 1975 (Orange Pippin 2013) and may be considered an old-timey apple by some growers or consumers, but I considered it a modern variety.
Between the twenty-two interviews conducted for this research I documented 450 distinctly-named apple varieties being grown in these orchards (see Appendix D). Not including what I considered to be modern, commercial apple varieties, 272 of these varieties are not found on RAFT’s Appalachia publication lists (see Appendix E). If included, this would increase the documented apple diversity in central/southern Appalachia to 906 varieties. Although these numbers are promising for the goal of preserving old-timey apple varieties, I found most of the varieties not documented by RAFT on only one or two orchards. Even though the average number of acres per orchard was forty and the average number of varieties per orchard was forty-six, the number of apple varieties being maintained on each of the twenty-two orchards varied dramatically, as did the amount of acres per orchard. For instance, the largest orchard I documented contained only ten apple varieties on 220 acres, which is in sharp contrast to the 341 varieties I documented on just seven acres from another orchard.
While there was generally an inverse correlation between orchard size and number of varieties grown, the majority of the orchards did not fall under either category (see Figure 11). Because of the extreme—but important—outliers, averages do not describe the typical orchard very accurately. The median number of acres was twenty, and the median number of varieties was twenty-four, which is a more accurate assessment. The largest orchards I visited were more similar to the modern industrial agriculture practiced for growing staple crops in the U.S. Conversely, the orchards with the most varieties tended to be smaller in size, a necessity for handling dozens of different bloom and harvest times. This describes two different types of apple growers I encountered during this project: the modern commercial grower and the antique apple preservationist, though most growers fell somewhere in between these two extremes. This is best displayed with a comparison of the two growers previously mentioned. Bill grows 341 apple varieties on seven acres, all of which are considered old-timey, heirloom varieties. Paul grows ten varieties on his 220 acres, only two of which might be considered old-timey, the Ginger Gold and the Red Rome. Bill’s motivation for growing apples is to preserve the rare varieties, while Paul grows popular apples for the consumer market . Additionally, Paul was the only orchardist I talked to that did not grow at least one “rare” old-timey variety. All twenty-one of the other orchardists were growing a minimum of one variety that is unquestionably considered an heirloom.
The above discussion demonstrates that, while there is a large amount of apple diversity in the area, a few growers are focused entirely on maintaining this diversity while others are focused on productivity and output; a large amount of this diversity is being maintained on small orchards where there may be only one or two trees of the variety. One important part of gaining an understanding of the status of apple-growing in the area is finding out what variety each orchard grows the most of, which I overwhelmingly found to be Golden Delicious. There are a number of varieties of Golden Delicious, with some growers having a newer strain and others having an original from the 1800s. Second to the Golden Delicious is Rome Beauty, another apple that has multiple strains. Just like the Golden Delicious, the original strain is considered an heirloom but there have been so many crosses and strains that it is difficult to know whether to consider some heirloom or not. These two apples were described by the orchardists as dependable, multi-purpose apples that people will buy. In addition to these two, a few other growers cited the Red Delicious, Gala, or Honeycrisp as the apple they grow the most. While most orchardists have roughly one to two dozen additional varieties, multiple generations of orchardists in western North Carolina have relied on Golden Delicious and Rome Beauty to pay the bills. Jeff accurately describes a widespread affection for Golden Delicious in the area:
“Golden is an old stand-by. People likes ‘em. You know you can cook ‘em, freeze ‘em, eat ‘em, they keep good, the trees is fairly easy growed, and they sell good. And I have more of them than anything. I wouldn’t care if I had more—I tell ya, if my whole orchard was Golden Delicious I could sell ‘em, so.” [Interview 17]
Not only were Golden Delicious and Rome Beauty cited by the majority of growers as the apple they grow the most of, but they also came up in my analysis as the top two apples found on most orchards. Ninety-one percent of the growers I spoke to were growing Rome Beauties, 86 percent were growing Golden Delicious, 82 percent were growing some strain of a Stayman Winesap, 82 percent were growing a Gala, 77 percent were growing Red Delicious, and 73 percent were growing Arkansas Black (see Figure 12). Of these varieties, Rome Beauty, Golden Delicious, Stayman Winesap, and Red Delicious are all varieties that may be regarded as heirloom depending on the strain, with Arkansas Black being a confirmed heirloom, and Gala being a modern variety. Heirloom or not, these apples are considered by most growers to be established stand-bys.
To gain a better insight on what the future of apple diversity in the area may be, I also asked about the varieties that were most recently planted. Almost without exception the orchardists were planting modern, commercial varieties. One grower had just planted three heirloom varieties (Pippin, Golden Russet, and Medaille d’Or) because the nursery he works with offered him a deal on their excess inventory, and the other exception was the antique apple collector, John, who adds five to ten heirlooms to his orchard every year. The apple most cited by orchardists as the variety they most recently planted was the Honeycrisp, a favorite in U.S. supermarkets. A close second to the Honeycrisp was Pink Lady, followed by other typical grocery store apples such as Jonagold, Cameo, Gala, and Fuji. Not only are all of these varieties recent introductions to the apple market, but they were bred almost exclusively for fresh-eating, aesthetic beauty, and long-term storage.
In summary, 450 distinctly-named apple varieties documented for this project is a significant finding, particularly being able to contribute 272 apple varieties to the existing RAFT variety list. Unfortunately, many of these 272 antique apple varieties are being kept only by one or two orchardists, very likely on only a couple trees, and are therefore still at risk of being lost. Of the orchardists I interviewed, a median of two dozen varieties are being grown with a range of heirloom, stand-by, and modern varieties. What is concerning is that virtually all of the apple trees being planted by the growers I interviewed are modern commercial varieties. I will now focus on my findings regarding the orchardists’ observations of and responses to changing growing conditions before returning to the topic of apple diversity to discuss the factors affecting this diversity.
One of the major research goals this project set out to accomplish was to identify the climatic changes apple orchardists have been observing. In order to do so, I gathered data on observed changes in the climate and also any changes in the pests and diseases that affect apple growing. As climate patterns change, plant and animal species adapted to particular environments are expected to shift as well. Monitoring changes in the distribution of plants and animals has yielded proxy data that may contribute to our understanding of changes in the climate (Aguado and Burt 2013). Changes in pests or diseases that are not related to the climate are still useful, as they nevertheless influence the future of apple diversity. Additionally, non-environmental factors effecting apple orchards in western North Carolina were a constant topic of conversation, and therefore bear discussion. The following section will describe observed and anticipated changes in the climate before discussing pests and diseases, followed by the external factors observed to influence apple growing.
Observed Changes in Climate
A number of significant trends emerged from the data collected on orchardist’s observed changes of climate. To begin, eighteen of the twenty-two orchardists (82%) interviewed discussed at least one way they had observed the climate to be changing. Whether or not they attribute the changes they described to anthropogenic climate change or climate variation will be discussed in the coming section on Perceptions of the Source of Observed Changes. This current section is devoted to summarizing the changes in climate and long-term weather patterns orchardists observed—including warmer temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns, an increase in extreme weather events, and generally unsettled patterns.
Of the eighteen growers who mentioned changes in the climate, sixteen of them (89%) discussed some kind of warming trend. This was the most significant finding regarding climate observations, and included references to the local climate being warmer in general, hotter in the summers, milder or warmer in the winter, or having a longer growing season. Eight growers (44%) mentioned having milder, warmer winters, seven (39%) observed the climate to be growing warmer in general, and five (28%) discussed having hotter summers (these are not mutually exclusive, and a few growers mentioned two of these trends). In addition to these general observations, orchardists are also noticing an increase in extreme temperatures—especially for record high temperatures. Whether in March or August, for one day or a week, extreme heat events are an increasing occurrence. These warming observations are consistent with the data obtained from the National Climate Data Center and summarized in section III.
Directly related to the observed warming trend are the increasing occurrences of crop-killing spring frosts. This phenomenon will be discussed further in the section The Effect of Changing Conditions on Apple Diversity, but because many orchardists described an increase in the frequency of damaging spring frosts it is important to explain it here. Every spring, apple trees go into bloom on a date that is determined by the orchard’s location, elevation, aspect, and winter weather. As the weather warms each spring, the trees bloom for pollination, so cooler areas such as northern regions or orchards higher in elevation bloom later than areas that warm earlier. Warmer winter temperatures cause the apple trees to bloom earlier than what has been the traditional bloom time in the region. When the trees are in bloom, they are susceptible to being damaged by below-freezing cold spells which prevent them from bearing fruit that year. Often times just one night of below-freezing temperatures will wipe out a whole crop of apples for the year. According to the orchardists’ observations, there appears to be no change in the date for the last frost. Additionally, it’s important to note that different varieties of apples bloom at different times, and therefore certain varieties are more susceptible to a damaging spring freeze. Roger, a 59 year old fourth generation grower has never witnessed a crop-killing freeze like what he experienced in the spring of 2012:
“We won’t even have 2 percent of the crop, maybe 1 percent. It’s just a wipeout. The worst crop we’ve ever had.” [Interview 20]
Eighteen of the twenty-two orchards I visited in 2012 had been hurt by a spring frost, many of the orchardists mentioning that they only had half a normal-sized crop and others estimated having less than ten percent or worse. Although one orchardist claims the frost date is shifting towards later in the year, the strong consensus was that a warmer, milder winter leads to an earlier bloom period, and the frost date that has always been roughly the same happens to come during the earlier bloom. Some growers describe it as an earlier bloom, and others just describe the growing season as being longer than it used to be. Estimates from orchardists about the early bloom in 2012 ranged from two weeks to one month earlier than normal. Many orchardists described the 2012 freeze as the worst they had ever seen, and see the threat of a late freeze becoming a more frequent issue. Many of the growers would talk about winter conditions they experienced as a child, such as Richard did, as being a thing of the past:
“We don’t have the winters we used to have—when I was growing up you never see the ground hardly for snow, snow stood on the ground all winter and we don’t got that no more.” [Interview 15]
Six of the eighteen growers (33%) who mentioned changes in the climate discussed changes in precipitation patterns. Three of these growers (50%) believed there was less snowfall now than when they or their parents and grandparents were young. The other three (50%) described less precipitation in general, with changes in timing and distribution. One grower observed that the rainfall he used to see in June and July had decreased, while precipitation in late fall and early winter had increased.
Aside from devastating spring freezes or extreme heat events, hail storms were also cited as a concerning pattern of extreme weather occurring in western North Carolina. Crop-damaging hail storms can be just as destructive for production as a spring frost. Many orchardists described the weather now as “unsettled,” or “inconsistent” when it comes to these extreme events. An important part of my research was to ask about what kind of changes in growing conditions the growers expect for the future, and to my initial disappointment, not a single grower was able to elaborate. Responses ranged from, “No idea, you’d be guessin” (Interview 18), or “Only God knows” (Interview 4), to “It’ll keep getting hotter and we’ll all be growin’ oranges” (Interview 8). Most of them did not even want to speculate, but a few growers suggested that it will only continue on the same trend they observed and had just described to me. I consider the orchardists’ inability to predict, or their hesitance to speculate, an indication of the unpredictable, erratic weather western North Carolina is experiencing. Dale, a fourth generation orchardist, describes his frustration with the variable weather patterns over the last few years:
“When I was a kid growing up, we worried about hail but it didn’t seem like it was a yearly event like it is now. We’ve had major weather events trying to farm for the last 5 years to some magnitude, ‘07 being the worst. This year’s been pretty bad too. Be it hail, be it frost…” [Interview 9]
When analyzing these findings with the orchardist demographic characteristics, I found only one significant correlation. All eight of the third, fourth, or fifth generation growers had acknowledged some kind of change in the local climate. The four growers who denied observing any changes in the climate were all first or second generation growers. Although 72 year old Jack is a first generation grower, he worked on a local apple orchard throughout his youth. With over half a century of observations in the local area to draw from, Jack didn’t hesitate to tell me what he had observed:
“I would say the weather patterns have changed. I worked up here when I was growing up, and the weather wasn’t- it didn’t vary as much. It was more consistent.” [Interview 16]
Observed Disease Changes
Diseases that affect apple trees are interrelated to the weather patterns, especially in a warm, moist area like the southern Appalachian Mountains. All the orchardists I spoke to rely heavily on a rigid fungicide spray regimen to battle diseases, and virtually all the growers agreed that a combination of the weather and their spray regimen were responsible for any differences in disease from year to year. The most common diseases in the area include fire blight and apple scab , with fire blight posing the greatest threat. Nine of the twenty-two orchardists interviewed described some form of an increase in the frequency of disease outbreaks in their orchard, with the majority of them referring to fire blight. Glomerella/bitter rot (Glomerella cingulata) was also a disease observed to be getting worse for two orchardists.
The increase in fire blight outbreaks on an orchard is related to a range of weather factors as they occur during bloom. Many orchardists said that excessive heat, humidity, and moisture during bloom increase the likelihood of getting fire blight. In addition, if the trees received any damage from a late frost or hail storm they would be much more likely to contract fire blight. The damages act as an open wound for disease to enter. A direct correlation can be made from an increase in diseases like fire blight to the spring weather and the orchardist’s spray program. Therefore, those who cited an increase in diseases were essentially citing an increase in the weather events that allow them to spread.
Also, some apple varieties are more tolerant to certain diseases than others, and therefore changes in the varieties being grown on an orchard may influence the frequency of disease outbreaks. Some orchardists told me that newer varieties such as Gala, Fuji, and Pink Lady are all susceptible to fire blight, while some of the older stand-bys like the Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and Stayman Winesap are all fairly resistant to fire blight.
Observed Pest Changes
Apple orchardists face a large amount of pests that require a considerable amount of attention to control. The majority of the growers I interviewed have not observed any recent changes in their pest populations. Again, like the diseases, some of the insect populations vary from year to year according to weather patterns. Also similar to diseases, orchardists rely on a rigid pesticide spray program to keep insect populations controlled. The only pest that was cited as an increasing problem by more than one orchardist is deer (Cervidae). Some orchards have no deer problem while others are finding themselves with such a growing issue with deer that they have tried nearly a dozen unsuccessful methods to fight them off. Deer are an especially troublesome problem for young trees because they eat the young buds and limbs, stunting their growth.
Although it is not a current problem for any of the orchardists I interviewed, all of them were aware of the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys). This is a pest that was brought to the U.S. from Asia and has been causing serious crop devastation north of North Carolina in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Some growers are more concerned than others, but all are aware of it. Eight of the orchardists I talked to have found a few of them in their orchards, although several of them saw one or two in 2010 and have not seen any since. Still, the bugs are predicted to eventually move south into North Carolina, just as Joseph feared:
“Of course, the brown marmorated stink bug is something that has not been a problem yet. I have seen some, and I expect them to be a problem in the next couple of years.” [Interview 11]
Observed Apple Market Changes
In addition to the number of environmental changes affecting apple growing in western North Carolina, I encountered a wide variety of social and economic factors that play a significant role in the apple growing industry. These factors may play as big of a role in shaping the local apple diversity as any environmental changes, which I will make more explicit in the following sections.
As described in section III.D, the number of orchards over the past thirty-five years in North Carolina has dropped from more than three hundred to just over one hundred (Blue Ridge Farm Direct Market Association 2013). This is because the apple processing plants that were once numerous in western North Carolina have closed down and moved elsewhere. Many growers told me the processing plants provided the steady income keeping everyone in business. When these major apple purchasers left it put their friends and neighbors out of business. A number of orchardists blame this directly on foreign competition (particularly China), saying growers in other countries do not have the same regulations American growers do. Additionally, twelve of the twenty-two growers (55%) complained about the increasing prices of pesticide sprays. Other expenses on the rise are gasoline and labor, but because foreign apples are so cheap growers are not able to increase the price of their apples. Many growers blame environmental regulations for restricting the kinds of sprays they can use, while others blame international trade agreements. The lack of regulation on imported apples also came up as the source of invasive pests such as the brown marmorated stink bug. Both Dale and Charlie, respectively, were straight-forward regarding what they thought caused the changes they’ve witnessed in the apple market:
“When I finished high school and college, late 70s early 80s, my Dad was runnin’ 800 to 1,000 acres of apples. Now we’re down to 30 acres. The biggest difference between then and now for us—long story short— before NAFTA, after NAFTA. We were at that time growing hundreds of acres for a lot of the canneries processing companies.” [Interview 9]
“EPA regulation is totally, 100 percent ridiculous. It’s killin’ us.” [Interview 1]
While such changes in the apple industry over the past thirty-five years have had a tremendous impact on the apple market, the greatest influence on the diversity of apples being grown (from the perspective of the growers) is consumer demand. When questioned about the reason for planting whatever variety was the most recent introduction to the orchard, all but three orchardists cited consumer demand. Recalling the preceding section on apple diversity, nearly all of the most recently planted apple varieties are modern, commercial varieties. Two growers responded with “personal interest” as the reason¬—both of whom I consider antique apple preservationists—and another grower said the most recent trees he planted were given to him. When asked about the reason for planting a certain apple variety, many orchardists seemed to think it an obvious answer. Seventy-two year old second generation grower, Nick, kindly explained:
“Yeah I try to keep what people want here, cause that’s the only way you can stay in business.” [Interview 2]
When asking about strategies the orchardists use to adapt to the described changes in growing conditions, I received a wide variety of responses. Regarding the increasing frequency of crop-devastating spring freezes, the most common response was that there was not much they can do, or just simply, “pray.” Still, a few orchardists were employing effective strategies for mitigating the effects of harmful spring freezes. One of the growers worked with North Carolina State University to install an overhead sprinkler system. Though this method is not an option for all growers due to the expense to install it and the requirement for a large body of water, it is a very effective strategy. At the base of the sloping orchard where this system was installed lies a large pond to which an irrigation system is connected to. Scattered throughout the orchard are thirty-foot poles with sprinklers attached to the top of them. When the orchard is in bloom and vulnerable to a freeze, the grower monitors the weather, and if the temperature threatens to dip below freezing he can turn on the irrigation system. When the freeze hits, the water on the trees will freeze and turn into ice, effectively preventing the trees themselves from freezing. The shortcoming to this method is that it only works if the freeze is short-lived and if the temperature does not drop below a certain level. Similar to this method, another grower has massive wind machines placed throughout his orchard. When there is a risk of freezing temperatures, he can turn on the wind machines to keep the air circulating and prevent cold air from settling down and freezing the trees.
While overhead irrigation and wind machines can be helpful, they are not totally effective and are generally expensive to install and use. A less costly strategy one grower used was to coat the base of the trees in white latex paint, which helps to prevent the sap from freezing and splitting the bark open. Although this does not prevent the blossoms or fruit from freezing, it mitigates the damages that occur from pests and diseases entering the tree through freeze-related wounds.
Other strategies used to mitigate the effects of a spring freeze involve utilizing the diversity of varieties being grown. One orchardist who grows a particularly high level of diversity cites the diversity itself as an adaptive strategy. Growing a wide variety of apples that bloom at different times decreases the likelihood that a spring freeze will wipe out the entire crop. Similar to this, another orchardist noticed that when a spring freeze occurred it always hurt the trees on his orchard that are at lower elevations. Often the trees that are at higher elevations of the orchard remain unharmed, because when a freeze comes the cold air settles down at the bottom of the slopes. Also noticing that some varieties bloom late enough every year that they are not at risk of being damaged by a spring freeze, he began planting the earlier blooming varieties at the tops of the slope and later blooming varieties at the bottom of the slope. Still, it became clear that there was no cure-all strategy for mitigating the effects of a harmful spring freeze. Though it was not part of my research and I did not gather consistent data on the topic, it was an emergent theme that many orchardists relied on government subsidies and insurance money. In fact, one orchardist told me the best year he ever had was in 2007 when his entire crop was killed off by a spring freeze. He made the amount of money he would have made in a good crop year from insurance but without the extra costs of maintaining his orchard. Another grower told me that he would have been much better off had the 2012 freeze killed 100 percent of his crop instead of 90 percent, because of the insurance money. Third generation grower, Mike, lost a large amount of his crop to the spring freeze and explained the reliance orchardists now have on insurance money:
“That’s something else you can put in your report: They do away with the insurance and the apple business’ll be gone.” [Interview 4]
I did not encounter many adaptive strategies to diseases other than adjustments to the timing and quantities of chemical and antibiotic sprays. Most orchardists rely heavily on chemical companies to offer products for new diseases as they arise. Many orchardists also talked about cutting off tree limbs that were infected with fire blight to prevent it from spreading, although that is a form of damage control and not a preventative strategy. The one preventative strategy I documented was a grower who was working with North Carolina State University to utilize a computer program called Maryblyt that was supposed to help predict the occurrence of fire blight outbreaks. The program used data on temperature, precipitation, and the growth stage of apples to calculate the potential levels of fire blight.
I found more strategies used to manage pests than diseases. Foremost, the increasing deer problem for some orchardists has led them to try a number of methods with varying effects. Because the deer were primarily a problem for younger trees, one orchardist began buying new trees rather than grafting them in order to get them producing quicker. Though more expensive, the trees are young and vulnerable for a shorter period of time. Other orchardists block off their younger trees with six foot chain link fences or an electric fence. A few growers put a perimeter of a single strand of electric tape smeared with peanut butter around their orchard at thirty inches off the ground. They say the deer are attracted to the peanut butter and after one lick they will not come back. Less effective methods to control the deer involve tacking a piece of soap, human hair, or pantyhose on a stake next to the young trees with hopes of confusing the deer with a human scent. Motion detectors hooked up to spotlights or speakers were also ineffective.
Strategies used for dealing with bugs largely involved changes in the chemical spray program, much like with diseases, but a few growers were getting positive results experimenting with methods that allowed them to spray less. One grower placed traps throughout his orchard that lured the bugs in and he cited positive results and was able to decrease the amount of sprays used. Similarly, another orchardist was using mating disruption, a device that releases pheromones from codling moth (Cydia pomonella), tufted apple bud moths (Platynota idaeusalis), and oriental fruit moths (Grapholita molesta). The pheromones put out by the device—which is placed in nearly every tree and is approximately the size of a pencil—prevent the male and the female from finding each other to mate and lay eggs in the apples. This strategy becomes more effective the longer it is used. The major side effect, as Joseph explained, is that it permits a decrease in the use of pesticides which then allows other pests such as the plum curculio (Conotrachelus nenuphar) to take over. Still, he was very satisfied with the mating disruption:
“We’re having less and less pressure from coddling moth and tufted apple bud moths and oriental fruit moths because we are using a lot more mating disruption. The mating disruption is working really, really well.” [Interview 11]
Other adaptive strategies employed by the orchardists are not in response to changes in weather, pests, or diseases, but to the major shifts in the apple market over the last thirty-five years. As the processing plants shut down and left western North Carolina, many growers had to find ways to make an income with their apples. Eight of the twenty-two orchards I visited (36 percent) relied on what was called “agrotourism” to survive, which is usually centered on you-pick style orchards and often includes other activities such as a corn maze, hay-stack rides, pumpkin patch, petting zoo, and various apple-related commercial products. Specializing in agrotourism allows orchardists to eliminate expenses from shipping and hiring pickers, and it also gives them alternative sources of income aside from their apples alone:
“They’re importing so much of this garbage from other countries that are not under the same restrictions and guidelines that we are, they don’t have to abide by the same regulations that we do and we can’t compete with it so I quit tryin. We’re strictly… We’ve gone from a commercial farm to specializing in agrotourism now.” [Interview 9]
As described in section III.A, scientists differentiate between climate variability and anthropocentric climate change. The above summary of changes the orchardists have observed on climate was not an admission of the orchardists’ recognition of climate change, but mostly observations of climate variability. Although eighteen growers (82%) gave examples of how they perceived the climate to be changing (Figure 13), only eight of those (44%) believed the changes to be human-induced (Figure 14). So, of the total sample, 36 percent acknowledge anthropogenic climate change. Of the other ten that had observed changes, five (50%) were unsure of what the cause was, four (40%) did not think it was human-induced, and another had no response.
Interestingly, all five of the growers who had observed changes and were unsure of what caused those changes were all third, fourth, or fifth generation growers. In fact, none of the eight orchardists from the sample who were third, fourth, or fifth generation growers denied the existence of anthropogenic climate change—though most of them did not acknowledge it either—they were unsure. Of the fourteen growers who are first or second generation orchardists, 50 percent of them do not think humans are causing the climate to change, 42 percent do, and roughly seven percent are unsure (Figure 15).
Adding further significance is the finding that all four growers who did not discuss changes in the climate cited examples of natural variation of the local climate as evidence for not considering any observations to be long-term permanent changes. Similar to this, of all growers who either answered “no” or “unsure” to the existence of anthropogenic climate change (13 of 22), 77 percent of them (10 of 13) referenced examples of natural variation in the local climate as counter-points. These results agree with a 2012 study (Hansen et al.) that shows local climate variability as a barrier to accepting the existence of climate change. These growers discussed many of the same observations made by other orchardists, but added they did not think it was a trend. They referenced experiences that they or their family had gone through in the past to demonstrate that what is happening now is not anything new. Many orchardists are hesitant to attribute events such as 2012’s spring freeze to climate change because they can remember a handful of times a similar event happened to them or their family in the past. Jeff’s recollection of the weather his grandfather experienced as a youth is exemplary of this:
“I’m not really on the global warming bandwagon. I’m not convinced of it, you know. Just because, I’ve talked to people—well my grandpa for example, he’s 86. And you know he said he was a boy, he remembered winters you could almost wade the creek. And he remembers winters when it was froze completely over.” [Interview 17]
Other growers, such as Bill, felt that the changes recently observed were unexplainable simply as “natural cycles:”
“Just to see these kind of changes in such a short 25 year period, there’s more at play here than just the shifting of climates by mother nature. There’s other factors that play here so I’m just convinced that mankind has something to do with this.” [Interview 7]
Richard represents yet another stance on the source of observed changes in growing conditions. After describing changes he had observed throughout his time growing apples, Richard made it clear what his position was regarding human-induced climate change:
“Researcher: Yeah. You got any opinion about the whole global warming or climate change? Or that stuff?
Richard: I think Al Gore made millions off of that shit.” [Interview 15]
Joseph’s opinion concerning the topic was less confrontational. He represents the five growers who were comfortable discussing changes in growing conditions, but not comfortable taking a stance on what was causing the changes:
“Well you know, I tend to believe that global warming is occurring. I’m not sure, I don’t know the cause of it, so I don’t really want to speculate on that. I don’t know if man is doing it or if it’s just a natural cycle of the universe or what. I don’t know.” [Interview 11]
Because such as strong majority of orchardists (82 percent) have observed a change in climatic conditions, these findings regarding their opinions of the source of the changes are important. If growers attribute their observed changes to natural cycles then they are inclined to believe the “normal” growing conditions will return, and may therefore not make any efforts at adapting to the current conditions. Those who believe the changes they are observing will continue or intensify should be more likely to take action.
Utilizing the findings described above I was able to identify a number of potential implications for the future of apple diversity in western North Carolina. Combining information about the orchardists’ planting practices, their motivations behind choosing varieties, the changing environmental and market conditions, and their experiences with specific varietal characteristics led me to the following general conclusions.
Observed environmental change with the greatest potential to impact apple growing and apple diversity is related to the reoccurring damaging spring frosts. The damaging spring frosts are a trend I expect to continue occurring because the frost date remained the same and the bloom time has an increased frequency of being earlier due to spring warming trends. There are a number of ways these trends can impact apple diversity if they continue. Most importantly, apple varieties that are early bloomers are at a greater risk of suffering losses. As early blooming varieties decrease in productivity it will force the orchardists to reconsider their economic value. If the investment that orchardists put into these early bloomers continues to be unrealized, it will lead growers to consider replacing those varieties with later blooming apples. Unfortunately it was not feasible to collect detailed information on every apple variety that I documented, but the apples that came up as being impacted by the spring freeze included Red Delicious, Transparent, and Lowland Raspberry. Seventy-seven percent of the orchards I visited were growing Red Delicious, an apple that has been considered a dependable stand-by.
As early-blooming varieties get phased out it is likely the orchardists will become more dependent on later-blooming varieties. The two apples being grown the most—Golden Delicious and Rome Beauty—are also the two apples most often cited for their ability to survive a spring freeze. They generally bloom later than other varieties, and although they were not mentioned by any growers as a variety they had recently planted, there is no evidence indicating they should lose their status as a stand-by in the near future. Also cited as late bloomers were King Luscious and Summer Rambo—two heirloom apple varieties with a long history of being grown in western North Carolina.
Another major impact of a spring freeze is the correlation between freeze damage and disease incidence. It was repeatedly mentioned that a spring freeze will not only wipe out your crop, but that it can cause damage to the trees that will allow diseases—especially fire blight—to spread rapidly. An increase in conditions that allow fire blight to spread will make it more difficult to grow apples that are prone to the disease. Some apple varieties were repeatedly described as being prone to fire blight infections, such as Gala, Jonathan, Jonagold, Fuji, and Pink Lady. With the exception of Jonathan, all of these apples were cited by multiple orchardists as the most recently planted variety. In addition to this, Gala, Fuji, and Jonagold are among the top ten most widely grown apple varieties in my research sample, grown on 88, 68, and 64 percent of the orchards respectively (Figure 12). The picture this paints is concerning. The apples that have the greatest trouble with fire blight were among the most recent additions to orchards across the area, and some of them are among the most widely grown varieties. Furthermore, Gala is a variety that selected orchards grow more of than any other variety. Describing the difficulty some of the new apple varieties have with diseases, Jeff explains his overall displeasure with them:
“You know a lot of the older varieties is easier growin than the new ones. We have to spray the new varieties a lot more. Like the Limbertwig, you can just, I mean, they don’t require near the work and the thinning and everything that you know… I think they’ve improved the looks on the new varieties but they lost their resistance to disease. And they’ve lost a lot of flavor.” [Interview 17]
Along with the increase in spring freezes was an observed trend of more extreme weather events in general. Growers most often cited hail storms and heat/high temperature events. Hail storms are also a major source of tree damage that leads to increased incidents of diseases. Related to observations of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, these extreme weather events make growing apples more uncertain than ever before. This is especially true given that many of the varieties prone to fire blight infections are among the most recently planted and among the most widely grown. As most orchardists have told me, though, diseases have always been a manageable problem with the right spray program. Considering price increases for the chemical sprays used to control fire blight, it will likely become more expensive to grow these varieties in the future. On the other hand there were some varieties mentioned to be more resistant to diseases, such as Red Delicious, Summer Rambo, Black Amish, Limbertwig, and Gold Rush. Remembering that Red Delicious is an early blooming variety susceptible to a spring freeze, its disease resistance is an important quality that may help to maintain its status as a stand-by.
Probably the greatest variable in the current and future diversity of apples grown in the area is consumer demand. Regardless of the increasing occurrence of weather conditions that lead to fire blight, all of the apples being planted by orchardists are prone to the disease. This seems irrational, but as second generation grower, Cindy, told me, “if you’re gonna grow varieties people want you got to deal with the fire blight” (Interview 12). Honeycrisp was the most recently planted variety in eight of the twenty-two orchards and is a good example of this. Although it was not cited as an apple that is prone to fire blight, it was described by most growers to be very troublesome. Many growers told me of the headache they got from trying to grow Honeycrisp but how people would pay more for it than any other apple:
“You can get more for a Pink Lady and a Honeycrisp than you can anything else and they will pay it they don’t care. So, yeah. The Pink Lady is a lot easier to grow. We call the Honeycrisp a beast because it is hard to grow.” [Interview 12]
“And we increased our Honeycrisp acreage a whole lot out there… And it was all just to supply the store with stuff we thought would sell.” [Interview 20]
Not only is consumer demand the driving force behind which varieties are being planted, but the lack of demand for some apples was cited as a reason for decreasing their production. Two apple varieties a number of orchardists were phasing out because of a lack of consumer demand, specifically, were Rome Beauty and Black Ben Davis. Rome Beauty is the number one stand-by in the area, being cited by many growers as the apple they grow the most of and was also found to be one of the top two apples grown on most orchards. Unfortunately, the Rome Beauties are being replaced by disease-prone apples due to consumer demand. Other apples being replaced because of decreased demand were Empire, Limbertwig, Arkansas Black, Cowmac, King Luscious, and Winter Banana. Many of these apples are considered old-timey varieties, which confirm that consumer demand is driving heirloom varieties out of many orchards to make room for modern varieties. When discussing the motivations behind planting the newer, more modern varieties, Richard explained the decreasing demand for old-timey apples traditionally used for cooking, processing, or cider. He described how people want the newer varieties which are almost entirely bred for fresh-eating purposes (as well as long-term storage):
“They want something to eat, something juicy, something crisp, you know? Like the Honeycrisp you see. That’s what goes now… the old varieties, well, people they wasn’t much interested in them I don’t reckon.” [Interview 15]
The last significant trend that may affect apple diversity is the pressure from international competition in the apple market. The number of apple orchards in western North Carolina declined sharply after the processing plants left, and growers are still feeling the effects of international competition. The price for apples stays low but the costs of fuel, chemical sprays, and labor are increasing. Combined with increasingly unpredictable weather conditions and a consumer demand for modern apple varieties that are troublesome to grow, I expect the number of orchards in western North Carolina to only continue declining. As the number of orchards decreases, the likelihood of losing more apple diversity will only increase. An alarming number of orchardists mentioned they had no one to take over their orchard as they age and are unable to continue farming. Of this project’s sample, only twenty-three percent were first generation growers while the other seventy-seven percent had inherited the profession (and most likely their land) from their family. Due to the increasing expenses and risks involved with growing apples, the future may see less new-comers to the profession than the previous generation saw.
- Figure 8: Reported political affiliation
- Figure 9: Reported annual income
- Figure 11: Relationship between orchard size and number of apple varieties grown
- Figure 13: Perceptions of changing climatic conditions
- Figure 10: Number of generations growing apples
- Figure 7: Reported religious views
- Figure 12: Ten varieties grown by the most orchards
- Figure 14: Perceptions of human-induced climate change
- Figure 15: Perceptions of human-induced climate change by multi-generation growers
Educational & Outreach Activities
This research was conducted in fulfillment of a Masters of Science in Applied Anthropology at the University of North Texas(UNT). A final report was written and provided to UNT and the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, and is unpublished. A list of documented apple varieties was provided to Renewing America’s Food Traditions to contribute to its documented apple variety list. My major professor, Dr. Jim Veteto, presented on portions of this research at the 2013 Society of Ethnobiology Annual Conference on our behalf. Dr. Veteto and I are considering publishing in an academic journal.
I expect this research to serve as a pilot project for further inquiry into the relationship between agricultural diversity, climate change, and sustainability, among other things.
Areas needing additional study
This research project documented 450 uniquely-named apple varieties on twenty-two orchards. Of these, 272 varieties I considered heritage or heirloom were not on the list previously made by RAFT for the central/southern Appalachian region. Though this is a significant contribution that furthers the region’s status as the most diverse foodshed in North America, a deeper analysis reveals a more troublesome situation. This high amount of apple diversity is being threatened by a number of environmental, economic, and social issues. The following is a summary of this project’s major findings indicating significant areas worthy of further attention, if the preservation of apple diversity and a more sustainable orchard system is to be achieved.
Data analysis revealed a significant consensus of environmental changes observed by the orchardists. The major observation was a general warming trend, but also cited were observations of precipitation changes, a general pattern of climatic instability, and increased frequency of extreme weather events. Of these, the greatest impact on apple growing has come from the increasing occurrence of spring freezes after a mild winter and early bloom. Earlier blooming apple varieties are most at risk of being hurt by a freeze, and therefore may be more at risk of being removed from orchards to be replaced by later blooming varieties. Further inquiry into which varieties are early bloomers will aid in identifying apples at risk.
I encountered three methods for mitigating the damaging effects of the spring freeze, none of which are totally effective. The installation of an overhead sprinkler system is expensive and usually dependent on having a large, accessible body of water. Using wind machines throughout the orchard is somewhat more feasible because they are not permanent and do not require a body of water. The third method is one that should be employed by all growers in the region, as it is effective and requires only proper planning. Virtually all orchards in the area are on an incline and because cold air settles down in lower elevations the freeze damage is most often at the lowest area of each slope. By planting the later-blooming varieties in lower, more freeze-prone elevations and early-blooming varieties higher on the slopes, there is a greater chance that more varieties will survive a spring freeze. Of course, a very serious freeze will affect the entire slope, and a very late freeze will come during bloom for the late-bloomers, but this is nevertheless a cost-effective strategy that increases the likelihood of surviving a spring freeze.
The other significant consequence of a spring freeze is the damage caused to the apple trees and the resulting vulnerability to disease. Fire blight was often cited as the major disease to deal with and many orchardists perceived it to be getting worse. My research found the only effective way to deal with fire blight was with preventative sprays and by removing the infected limbs from the orchard. One orchardist informed me of a computer program from North Carolina State University (Maryblyt) that is supposed to help calculate the probability of a fire blight outbreak using weather conditions. This may aid orchardists in designing an efficient spray program to prevent an outbreak. Using this computer program in tandem with planting practices that minimize damages caused by a spring freeze (described above) may help mitigate losses. Though it was out of the scope of this project, it would be beneficial to collect data on the types of rootstock orchardists are planting; I was told some dwarf rootstocks are more susceptible to fire blight than others.
My research found that socioeconomic conditions play as great of a role or greater than environmental conditions in shaping the state of apple diversity in western North Carolina. The general trend shows that consumers want to buy modern apple varieties rather than heirloom varieties. Orchardists are responding to this demand by planting modern varieties despite the fact that most of them are susceptible to fire blight. Growers have told me that the consumers want juicy, sweet apples for fresh eating rather than apples for baking, sauces, or juice. Recalling the demand for apples in the South a hundred years ago—as described by Creighton Lee Calhoun (2010)—this is a trend that has been completely reversed. Apples used to be a fruit that served a number of culinary purposes and they were seldom eaten raw. The current demand for fresh eating-apples will eventually lead to more varietal extinctions unless the public is educated on the utilitarian value of different apple varieties. This phenomenon is indicated by Dale, who manages a you-pick “agrotourism” orchard:
“Whereas the younger generation will come in and pick your Gala’s, Fuji’s, and Honeycrisp, the old-timers want the Grimes Golden or the Arkansas Black or maybe even a Granny Smith.” [Interview 9]
It is becoming increasingly hard to make a living from growing apples in western North Carolina. This is due to the previously mentioned environmental and social issues, but also because of economic pressures as well. A number of growers complained of the rising costs of inputs and the national and international pressure to keep prices low. Because of this, many orchardists have turned from commercial farming to agrotourism . Sadly these economic pressures may prevent young people from taking up apple growing, and with the average grower age being 62 years old in my sample, apple growers may be a dying breed. It is regrettable that data was not solicited on the topic, but multiple orchardists mentioned they had no next of kin to continue their orchards . It is possible that as aging orchardists retire, the only economic option for them will be to sell their land to an existing grower who has the capital to expand. I was told a number of times that start-up costs make it next to impossible to get into the profession on your own. Additionally, my research has shown that large-scale operations tend to have a lower amount of diversity in their fields. This is essentially what happened to the small American farmer throughout the 20th century (see Berry 1996, Barlett 1987).
Also of significance were the findings regarding orchardist perceptions of the source of their observed changes. Many growers attributed changes in growing conditions to natural weather cycles rather than anthropogenic climate change. It is my belief that a grower who denies the existence of climate change will be less likely to take action than a grower who thinks the changes will continue to intensify. Using this logic, the acceptance of climate change as a reality will be beneficial in developing adaptive strategies. The opposite is also true: denial of climate change is a barrier to developing adaptive strategies. One interesting finding related to this is that all four orchardists who denied observing any changes in growing conditions were either first or second generation growers. All of the third, fourth, or fifth generation orchardists had observed changes. These growers had more experience to draw from and therefore had more information to use in making an informed decision on the climate, a long-term concept. Also, the widespread hesitation to speculate about the future climate was a major indicator to me of the increasingly erratic weather happening in western North Carolina.