What USDA Climate Hubs Could Do for Cape Cod

Mar 4, 2014

The USDA's new Northeast Regional Climate Hub could help Massachusetts' cranberry growers adapt to climate change.
Credit Heather Goldstone

Seven new Climate Hubs established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture aim to help secure our food supply in the face of rapidly changing climate conditions.

Massachusetts is the second largest producer of cranberries, with over 14,000 acres of working cranberry bogs. Vermont is the second largest producer of maple syrup; the 890,000 gallons harvested there are topped only by Quebec, to its north. Maine is the most forested state in the nation, and the largest timber producer in New England.

All of that bounty faces an uncertain future because of climate change. Rising temperatures, increasing (and increasingly sporadic) rainfall, and more pests are just a few of the challenges. By some measures, spring now arrives a week to ten days earlier than it did a few decades ago - a fact not lost on New Hampshire maple syrup producer Howard Pearl.

Pearl says the image of buckets hanging from pegs driven into the trunks of maple trees is nothing but a "romantic notion." Instead, he harvests maple sap using plastic tubing and a powerful vacuum pump. Maximizing efficiency is at least some buffer against variable conditions.

For cranberry growers in southeastern Massachusetts working with the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, getting ready for climate change means something different. They're working to breed more heat-resistant cranberry strains and engineer bogs to handle extreme rainfall events.

There's no playbook for agricultural producers trying to adapt to the new normal, but the USDA is hoping to capitalize on the experiences and knowledge of producers, as well as research by scientists. They've established seven Regional Climate Hubs whose job it will be to share information among scientists and producers in hopes of finding and propagating the most effective techniques. The Hubs could also provide technical and financial assistance to producers trying to make forward-looking changes.

"It’s now time to come out of research labs," says Dave Hollinger, a scientist with USDA’s Forest Service and the leader of the Northeast Climate Hub, "and get some of these results, some of this information to people where it can make a difference in their daily lives."

The Climate Hubs face challenges of their own, though. USDA has set aside minimal funding for the program, instead trying to draw on existing staff and resources. And Dave Hollinger and his colleagues still need to figure out a way to connect producers across New England, and the nation.