When Pam Knox walked into the peach orchard at the University of Georgia horticulture farm this spring, there was nothing on the trees except leaves and a couple of brown fruits — the result of one of the state's warmest winters ever followed by two nights of freezing weather in March.
"It's just really odd, because over the course of one night, they lost their entire crop and their entire production here," said Knox, an agricultural climatologist with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, which shares research and expertise with farmers and others. Commercial peach farmers in the state lost as much as 95% of their yield, she estimated.
Georgia, with its iconic peaches, isn't the only place in the south where farmers have had to deal with changing conditions. Houston, Tupelo and Atlanta all had one of their top five warmest winters on record this year, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. Farmers are contending with those warming winters by using new or improved agricultural techniques, trying out new crop varieties and even growing crops that were previously less common in their regions.
"Winter is the season in Georgia that is warming the most quickly," Knox said, affirming a trend that includes most of the United States. "We don't have any reason to think that that trend is going to change, so we will continue to expect more warmer winters."
Cody Mills, an extension agent and Chickasaw County coordinator at Mississippi State University, said a warmer and wetter winter delayed some farmers from planting corn and some soybeans because they had to wait for drier weather. A couple weeks might not seem like a long time, he said, but that can set back cutting and harvesting later.
Cattle ranchers have been affected, too. Mills said that the pathogens associated with a wet winter – as well as the mud – took a toll on some cows. Wetter, warmer weather creates better conditions for the pathogens and parasites that cause cows to develop conditions like foot rot, pinkeye and diarrhea, said Russ Daly, an extension veterinarian with South Dakota State University.
In Texas, the warm weather presented more of a mixed bag for cattle farmers, said David Anderson, a professor and extension economist at Texas A&M University. He said drought conditions have meant higher hay costs, but farmers have needed less of it since cows eat less in hotter weather.
Farmers have always adapted to changing weather. Now they're adapting to climate change.
For example, some fruit growers in Georgia are planting earlier-blooming peach varieties that don't require as much cold weather, Knox said. But it's not an easy calculation, because some of those earlier varieties may also be more susceptible to frost.
Farmers may also diversify their crops. Knox said some farmers in recent years have begun trying citrus and olives that are more often grown in climates with milder winters than Georgia's.
In Mississippi, some farmers have turned to corn varieties with a shorter growing season, Mills said. And researchers are working to improve vaccines against livestock conditions that can be made worse by a warming environment.
Taking good care of animals regardless of the changing conditions is paramount, said Brandi Karisch, an extension beef cattle specialist for Mississippi State University.
" 'We've always done it that way' is usually the death of a business, and you can see the same thing in the cattle world," Karisch said. "We have to adapt to what the animals are telling us that they need and what we're seeing from a climate and a system standpoint."
As they work to ensure the health of their crops and animals, farmers also "have to make sure that they make money, and you're not going to invest in a crop that's not going to succeed," Knox said. But she doesn't see the end of Georgia peaches anytime soon. Instead, she sees farmers considering which peach varieties they'll be able to grow going forward and what other crops they can add to the mix.
"I think the farmers see the temperatures get(ting) warmer as an opportunity to increase the diversity of what they can grow," Knox said. "They're trying to figure out ways to respond to that and to take advantage of it."