This week has been a very rainy week in North Carolina. As the fourth day in what has been an extended bout of relatively “bad” weather, this period of social isolation, at times, proves to be one of minor conveniences as well: Fewer concerns about early-morning grooming routines, work bag loadouts, or catching the best glances of the morning news—as it would turn out, I’m not missing much. On days like today, however, rain is a worry for most. Many, including myself, would worry about sickness. Some, particularly restaurant businesses, would worry about slow sales. Others would just be bored to tears.
This week has been a very rainy week in North Carolina—and in the 13 years that I have spent living here, never have I recalled it happening in mid to late May. As evidenced in the past, the presence of COVID-19 has highlighted the gravity and severity of many different industrial and environmental issues—whether this is food insecurity in minority communities, over-dependence on foreign labor, or hyper-centralization. At this point in what is now clearly a long road ahead, it should be no surprise that issues related to weather change and climate consistency will likely come up and rear their ugly heads at farmers this summer.
In our experience, while many farmers will list the weather as one of their top challenges, most tend to be apprehensive about sharing affirmative opinions on climate change. The reasoning behind this is relatively clear: despite political preferences, climate change has quickly metamorphosed from an issue related to science and data analysis, and into an issue that falls along a deeply entrenched partisan divide. Depending on where you are, it is quite possible to lose business partners, colleagues, and even customers based on your positioning relative to these beliefs.
Farmers, however, will tell you that one of the keys to their profession is weather consistency. Without it, planting days and harvest days are difficult to plan. Days of sunlight are difficult to calculate, and man-hours of labor are difficult to schedule as a result of unknown harvest expectations. Despite the current fixation that mainstream media has with covering every iota of the COVID-19 crisis, here’s the thing: Climate change, and its effects, have not ceased to exist—regardless of the degree to which Coronavirus occupies our day-to-day consciousness. For all of the fresh concern being expressed over the food supply chain—and by everyday Americans—the question still beckons as to how it will be affected by the prominent, intersecting, issues of coronavirus and climate change.
For those living in Southeastern states—as well as the Mid-Atlantic and some in the Midwest—rainy days like today bring to mind the fact that the summer is also a season of hostile weather conditions. States from Virginia down to Louisiana get pummeled with hurricanes. Great plains states experience violent tornadoes. Finally, the Midwest and the west coast experience flooding, mudslides, droughts, and wildfires.
Such weather has always been characteristic of these diverse parts of the country. What has changed, however, is the level of predictability with which they occur, the intensity of a single event, and the frequency with which they happen. What used to be storms that occurred every 5 to 10 years are becoming yearly. Couple this with the fact that it takes only so much as one bad nature event to wipe out a year’s worth of hard labor and investment, and it becomes clear that climate change alone exposes farmers to an extraordinary amount of financial risk that is only rising. If you are growing a product that takes multiple years to cultivate, this risk can be much worse. Take for example Sean Obrien, who grows Blackberries for Seal the Seasons: He has admitted that it takes around five years to plant and cultivate a single harvest—and all of that hard work can be easily wiped out in a one-day natural event.
Coronavirus has had a multiplicative effect on this issue, and in turn, raised many questions: how do you evacuate people while social distancing? How do you shelter in places such as schools, which tend to be crowded, during these types of events? Finally, how do we take care of those that are most vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters and global pandemics—the elderly and the infirmed? Events such as Hurricane Katrina have proven that bad storms can not only displace hundreds of thousands of residents but also be more than enough to put the federal emergency response apparatus on its knees. Organizations such as FEMA were the target of hot criticism over the inadequacies in its Hurricane Katrina response. What are these inadequacies supposed to look like in the midst of yet another once-in-a-lifetime storm, with a pandemic that has our emergency response efforts bordering at capacity? Furthermore, what do these inadequacies look like after the current administration pulled a quarter billion dollars in funding for emergency response efforts as recently as last year?
Something about extreme weather in the United States is that short of a few recent exceptions, it is a characteristically rural phenomenon. A wide swath of American farmland accounts for our tornado risk map. This is to say that with the exception of maybe hurricanes—forest fires, tornadoes and mudslides disproportionately affect rural populations: the same populations that serve as America’s agricultural workforce. A financially and operationally tapped FEMA will not be able to meet the demand. Additionally, where does the money come from to help those that have been affected or displaced by a natural event? Outside of manpower, FEMA will need to produce housing, as well as emergency medical services beyond that which they are already providing to address the pandemic.
While a major part of the concern is the quality and capacity of the impending emergency response effort, the other part of it has to do with being able to meet the prospective supply chain demands as a result of these types of weather events. If people are panic-buying pork, or berries, or broccoli, how is a farm operation supposed to keep up with the demand when it is working with less available labor, onerous risk mitigation standards, and fewer available options for getting to market? Couple this with the threat of losing a harvest due to inclimate weather and the convergence of ecological, economic, health and infrastructural threats, COVID-19, and climate change are proving to be a truly challenging combination for farm businesses.
As far as how the states are responding, it is not entirely clear. Reopening businesses, if anything, can pose the potential of increasing virus cases in a summertime that many had hoped would provide some reprieve. As we progress further into the summertime, we advance further towards confronting an issue that is beyond the average person’s control. Currently, FEMA is preparing for a crisis of even more historic proportions, and by asking the tough questions: how to safely evacuate people whilst observing viral mitigation measures. How to manage strained relationships with a president that is morally-compromised, churlish and unhinged, and how to help states in managing natural disasters amid the current pandemic. Additionally, they are considering how to handle what will be exceedingly tough scenarios should they arise: Evacuating hospital patients, even the infected, with pharmaceuticals and ventilators in tow.
FEMA fancies itself as protecting from the worst with the development of new standard operating procedures, coupled with the recent purchase of 100,000 body bags and the development of an app to handle surges in demand. In normal times, their efforts may even be considered adequate. As it stands, however, it does not seem as if the current designs in place for the agency will be enough to safely deliver everyone through the complexities of a coronavirus summer. Insofar as what I know, the current coronavirus response is colored by the idea that its rate of contagion will go down in the summer. Mind you, there is no actual proof that this is supposed to happen, just as much as there is no actual proof that this virus has a harder time surviving during the warm months. In truth, such observations are contrivances, conjecture, and at best, hypotheses—but in no way are they steeped in fact. It is here, that we are left to assume that whatever complete response FEMA has in store will not be enough—not for the people that will lose their homes, the farmers that will lose their crops, the businesses that will lose their property and those who have yet to be sick. I hope I am wrong, but in the end, we will have to see.