‘Close to 80 inches of rain fell on Rappahannock in 2018 … almost double the annual average’
It seems that almost anyone who makes their living off the land in Rappahannock has a 2018 story.
Jenna Brownell, co-manager of Whippoorwill Farm, remembers standing in the shelter of a shed and watching the garden wash away. Multiple times.
Stacey Carlberg, co-manager of The Farm at Sunnyside with her husband Casey Gustowarow, tells of trucks stuck in mud and of digging ditches to divert rushing rainwater away from the crops. At Waterpenny Farm, “everything kept getting drowned,” recalls co-owner Rachel Bynum.
John Genho, manager at Eldon Farms, says the cows there struggled to gain weight because the grass they grazed was saturated with water.
And Bill Gadino remembers the stress that came with seeing downpours soak the fields of his winery.
“Grapes don’t like their feet wet.”
Lots more unpredictability
It was a relentlessly soggy year. Close to 80 inches of rain fell on Rappahannock in 2018, more in some places. That’s almost double the annual average for the county.
And it often came in deluges. On at least 20 days in 2018, storms dropped more than an inch of rain here, more than twice as frequently as during a typical year.
Maybe 2018 was simply an outlier, the kind of stretch of unusually ruinous weather that farmers have been toughing out for generations. But what if it was something more portentous, a glimpse of times to come?
When scientists refer to climate change these days, they mean much more than rising temperatures. Now, they say, it’s starting to play out in other ways, too—more torrential rains, longer spells of drought, enormously destructive wildfires.
And unpredictability. Lots more unpredictability.
Or, as John Delmare, owner of Rappahannock Cellars put it, “I don’t know what normal is any more.”
Steven Nash, visiting senior research scholar at the University of Richmond, and author of the book “Virginia Climate Fever,” goes so far as to suggest that “climate change” doesn’t do justice to what is occurring. He prefers the term “climate disruption.”
“Climate change can come across as a smooth, almost benign phenomenon,” Nash said. “But it doesn’t communicate the full hazard of what’s happening to us.”
Climate is not to be confused with weather. While the latter is the result of day-to-day changes in the atmosphere, the former is reflected through the averages of temperatures, precipitation, humidity, wind and other measures at a specific location over a prolonged period of time, usually at least 30 years.
Long-term data shows Virginia is getting warmer and wetter. According to Climate Central, a nonprofit comprised of scientists and science journalists, Virginia’s average temperature has increased every decade since 1970. More specifically, the northern Piedmont region has experienced the fastest rate of temperature rise in the state, especially during the winter, when the average temperature has climbed about .65 degrees Fahrenheit each decade.
Climate Central also calculated that this part of Virginia now experiences 12 more winter days with above normal temperatures than it did in 1970. And it found that the first leaves of spring are appearing about a week earlier than in 1980, and the first frosts are coming, on average, about 15 days later than they did last century.
More heat often brings more precipitation — for every 1 degree Fahrenheit of temperature increase, the atmosphere can hold 4% more moisture. But drawing conclusions about rainfall trends is trickier since diverse geographic conditions can cause it to vary widely from location to location, even within a county.
That said, Climate Central reported that the number of days with more than an inch of precipitation has roughly doubled since 1950, based on measurements in Charlottesville.
Going to extremes
Climate trends are largely based on averages over an extended period, so they can’t adequately reflect the more extreme weather events that can wreak havoc on agricultural production.
Local farmers and wine grape growers have to take a much shorter view, focusing on the seasonal rhythms that shape their planting and harvest schedules. And what they’re noticing is that the weather has become more erratic.
“The one consistent thing is that the weather is more inconsistent,” said Carlberg, who has farmed at both Sunnyside and Waterpenny for about 10 years. “What we thought were regular weather patterns, we can’t rely on as much.
“It’s not like you just get a frost a few weeks early,” she added. “Farmers know how to deal with that. But the extremes are harder to recover from.”
A recent example was a late frost on Mother’s Day weekend last spring. A number of local wineries took a big hit. Delmare, at Rappahannock Cellars, was able to limit his losses a bit because he had invested in propane heaters and large fans that push cold air away from the ground. He actually bought the equipment two years ago because of another trend he noticed. With warmer, shorter winters, the buds on his vines were turning green earlier in April, which meant they were exposed to a potential spring frost for a longer period of time.
“Those are the kind of things we’re seeing that are different from 20 years ago,” he said. Delmare also noted that his winery was hit by a hailstorm for the first time in 2019. The second time was this year.
Specific weather events can’t be tied directly to climate change, but to Delmare, it reflects the weather’s variability, which he described as “all over the place.”
Because of shorter winters and longer growing seasons, grapes can be harvested earlier in the wineries, perennial herbs stay active longer, and it’s no longer so strange to see tomato plants still producing fruit in November. Fall crops can do particularly well.
“We’re having the biggest cabbages we’ve ever had,” said Carlberg. “They’re actually kinda frightening.”
But the dark side of milder winters is that they make it much easier for pests and pathogens to survive and thrive.
“The change in winters is what we noticed first,” said Aleta Gadino, of Gadino Cellars, and a board member of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP). “Then we started seeing more insects coming here from farther south.”
Now, says Julie Shortridge, an assistant professor and extension specialist at Virginia Tech, destructive insects that used to plague farmers only in South Carolina and Georgia are showing up in Virginia fields.
“That means more intense pest management,” said Steven Rideout, another Virginia Tech professor and extension specialist. “That could mean more pesticides, which is more costly and has an impact on the environment. And it can make it a lot more difficult for organic farms.”
Rideout said scientists are likewise seeing certain diseases in places where they usually don’t, such as southern blight, a fungus that can infect tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins.
“You didn’t see that in the Shenandoah Valley 10 years ago,” he said.
There’s also growing concern about the spread of the spotted lanternfly, an insect native to Southeast Asia that first appeared in eastern Pennsylvania in 2014. Three years ago, some were found in Frederick County and Winchester, Va.
If it arrives in Rappahannock, the lanternfly potentially poses a big threat to local grapevines and fruit trees. Its favorite host, though, is the ailanthus tree. Also known as the “Tree of Heaven,” it’s an invasive species that already grows all over the county.
The threat of invasives
While there’s no direct correlation between climate change and invasive species, there is a connection. Warmer winters and longer growing seasons can create a more hospitable environment for plants and animals that aren’t native to the region. Some research has even found that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can accelerate the growth of invasive vines, such as kudzu.
Once an invasive establishes itself in an area, it has a big advantage over native species: nothing eats it. Ultimately invasives can have both an aesthetic and ecological impact on a community.
“People make a disconnect between the abstract notion of invasive species and driving by and seeing kudzu all over a mountain,” said Mike Wenger, an invasive species expert with the RLEP. “They look at it and say, ‘That looks like crap.’ They don’t realize that what they’re seeing is invasive species.”
Beyond how they degrade Rappahannock’s pastoral views, invasives can have a lasting, harmful effect on a community’s ecosystem, according to Celia Vuocolo, a wildlife habitat and stewardship specialist at the Piedmont Environmental Council.
“Invasive species are one of the top causes of biodiversity loss,” she said. “They throw a wrench into how our natural systems work.”
Nick Lapham, owner of The Farm at Sunnyside, knows firsthand the damage invasive species can do. He estimates that another notorious invasive, the emerald ash borer, has killed hundreds of trees on his property.
“There’s a big patch of woodlands that’s now totally dead,” he said. “Every ash tree that’s not treated is going to die or is dead. That insect has had a transformative impact on the forests of Rappahannock County. And it happened in the blink of an eye.
“If we’re not careful, we’re going to have a less and less diverse ecosystem in the county,” Lapham added. “When you look at the trends—warmer winters, warmer nighttime temperatures, unpredictable patterns of precipitation—a lot of the impact has to do with how these stresses combined. Together, climate change and invasive species put a lot of stress on the system.”
It’s true that farming has always involved a roll of the dice. But now it can feel that the numbers on the dice are constantly changing.
“There are always year-to-year changes in the weather. Farmers know how to manage that,” Shortridge said. “But the window of what they expect to see is shifting in a lot of different ways. Subtle ways that people don’t always grasp if they think it’s just getting warmer.
“When you read that because of climate change, the average temperature will be a few degrees higher by the end of the century, it doesn’t sound that critical,” she added. “But when you look at what that actually means, and the day-to-day weather we experience, it can be quite severe.”
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So, for those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around the fickleness of nature, it’s no longer enough to be old-fashioned farmer resilient. These times require even more resourcefulness and a sharper focus on expecting the unexpected.
It means shifting to plants that are better able to withstand stressful weather twists or planting summer annuals in grazing fields—such as sorghum-sudangrass and pearl millet—to get through hot, dry spells. And it means embracing diversity.
“With climate change, the more diverse your farm can be, the more adaptable you are,” said Carlberg. “Back in 2018, that was a really tough year. We lost about 25% of our production. But because of our diversity, we still had a profitable year. The fact that we grow 60 different things really helped. When the cauliflower was drowning, the kale and cabbages were doing fine.”
It also is important to seize opportunities that the shifting seasons provide. Bill Gadino points out that the milder winters have made it possible to grow merlot grapes here. At the same time, he says the website he visits most often on his iPad is the National Hurricane Center’s. This year alone, 12 tropical storms made landfall in the U.S, and 10 dumped heavy rains on Virginia, according to the National Weather Service.
With so much day-to-day unpredictability, it’s that much harder to figure out what climate change ultimately will mean to a place like Rappahannock. Ben Watson, a climate extension specialist at the Virginia Institute for Rain Science, believes that rising temperatures will drive more plants and animals northward, particularly to higher altitudes.
“So, it raises the conservation value of land in the foothills and in Rappahannock County,” he said. “To keep these areas intact will become a unique management challenge for the conservation community, but it’s something we absolutely need to do.”
Rachel Bynum wonders if a different kind of migration could affect the county. If coastal flooding creates “climate refugees,” they likely will seek safer havens inland.
“We could have more stresses placed on our beautiful, sparse community,” she said. “That could be one of the biggest effects our community will feel.”
Stacey Carlberg’s concerns have more to do with the ability of farmers around the country to adapt to the increasing randomness of extreme weather.
10 invasive threats
To most people, invasive species are just part of the bountiful mix of plant and animal life in Rappahannock.
To Mike Wenger, they’re disrupters of the county’s natural habitats.
“If you see a tree where nothing has nibbled on the leaves, it’s taking up water, it’s taking up space, and it’s not contributing anything,” said Wenger, a board member of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection who teaches a course on invasive species at the Rappahannock Center for Education. “If something doesn’t feed the insects, you don’t feed the birds and small mammals. It can affect the whole ecosystem.”
He acknowledges that it can be no small challenge to remove invasive species from a property. It can be expensive and take years to do so effectively.
But the first step is to know the enemy. Here’s his list of 10 invasive plants and animals among the many that pose current or future threats to Rappahannock’s ecosystem.
1) Ailanthus: Native to Southeast Asia, the so-called “Tree of Heaven” is now common in this region. It’s a triple threat in that it grows quickly and takes over the canopy, is a prolific seed and it produces a biochemical that could harm other organisms.
2) Garlic mustard: Another prolific seed producer that can overwhelm and choke native ground cover, particularly in forests.
4) Japanese knotweed: A relentless and rapid-growing plant that has taken over many stream beds in Rappahannock. It not only contributes to soil erosion, but also is very difficult to eradicate.
5) Autumn olive: A tree that can grow 15 to 20 feet tall, it was once viewed as a way to control erosion. But it spreads quickly and displaces native trees in forests. It also can take over fields left fallow.
6) Perilla mint: A plant that can be harmful to livestock, even when baled into hay.
7) Emerald ash borer: An insect that attacks and destroys most species of ash trees. It has damaged forests in Rappahannock and Shenandoah National Park.
8) Spotted lanternfly: Although it has not yet been seen in the county, the lanternfly has been reported in Winchester and Frederick County. It’s potentially a big threat to local grapevines, fruit crops and other tree species, including oaks, maples, pines and walnuts.
9) Feral hogs: Considered a nuisance species in the Virginia state code, they can be destructive to agriculture and carry diseases that can spread to livestock and humans. No sightings yet in Rappahannock, but they have been reported in Culpeper County.
10) House sparrows: They will kick native birds out of their nest boxes, and even kill other adult birds and nestlings. Since they are not protected as migratory birds, you can remove their nests from bird boxes. But be careful not to remove nests of native birds.
“If climate change continues unabated, frankly, it will be harder to produce food,” she said. “I think you will start to notice that in the supply chain.”
Her hope is that living with a pandemic for much of this year will get people to think more seriously about climate change.
“It’s another big, very uncertain topic where people aren’t sure how it’s going to go, or how it’s going to affect them individually,” she said.
“But it will affect us.”
By Randy Rieland — For Foothills Forum
What you can do
Climate change is such a complex, abstract subject that a common reaction is “But what can I do about it?” So we asked six environmentalists to suggest one action to take.
Julie Shortridge, assistant professor and extension specialist at Virginia Tech: Buy local foods. It reduces the emissions generated by shipping food around the world. And it’s a great way to support growers who use environmentally sustainable farm practices.
Steven Nash, author of“Virginia Climate Fever”: Join the Chesapeake Climate Action Project. Plus write letters, give money and march.
Aleta Gadino, board member, Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP): Look for alternative non-plastic products and wrappings.
Steven Rideout, associate professor and extension specialist at Virginia Tech: Be patient. Let the science catch up and see what the answers are.
Claire Catlett, Rappahannock field representative of the Piedmont Environmental Council: Plant a native tree for every year you’ve lived.
Mike Wenger, board member, RLEP: Vote.
Part 1 (Oct. 29) For decades, Rappahannock has been able to preserve its natural beauty and stunning views. But more challenges are on the horizon.
Part 2 (Nov. 11): Preserving a rural landscape is closely linked to maintaining a robust rural economy. Land-use tax breaks, innovations in product lines, distribution and marketing all help, but farms are still getting smaller, and fewer.
Part 3 (Nov. 26): The views get most of the attention, but the county's water and soil quality are a critical part of its environmental health. What shape are they in?
Part 4 (Dec. 9): It may appear to be frozen in time, but Rappahannock is always in a state of flux. How it deals with such challenges as climate change and invasive species may be a key to its future.
This series is funded in part by a grant from the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP). In compliance with Foothills Forum’s Gift Acceptance Guidelines, RLEP had no role in the selection, preparation or pre-publication review of these stories. Foothills Forum is an independent, nonpartisan civic news organization whose mission includes providing in-depth explanatory reporting on issues of importance to Rappahannock County.