Local News

Warming temperatures may move NC farmers to switch crops

Posted September 18, 2019 5:45 p.m. EDT
Updated September 18, 2019 6:58 p.m. EDT

— Jay Sullivan walks through rows of harvested corn. His father, son and grandson close by. His is a family farm, and it always has been.

"My dad, he farmed with his father. I farmed with him. My son farmed with me, and hopefully one of his sons will farm with him," Sullivan said.

The Sullivan farm is 900 acres and sits in Sampson County. More than a third of acreage is dedicated to corn. And it's getting harder to grow corn in North Carolina as temperatures rise.

"It's very concerning to me," said Ron Heiniger, North Carolina State University professor of cropping systems. "We here in the southeast compete with growing corn with our midwestern neighbors. They have always had advantages as far as temperature and soils and rainfall compared to us, but now that these temperatures are warming up, that advantage is getting much larger."

Heineger has been studying what conditions are best to grow corn for decades. His latest study involves putting tiny thermometers on the corn which measure temperatures at leaf level. If the temperature climbs above 95 degrees, the corn begins to die.

In 2019, he measured three periods where the atmospheric temperature reached or exceeded 95 degrees. The periods stretched for weeks at a time, creating dangerous conditions for local corn.

"In the last five years, it's really started to become an issue as we have seen more and more fields where we have had poor yield results," said Heiniger. "Even in years where we've had some rainfall and we should have had decent opportunity to produce good corn, we have seen some missing kernels that is an indication of high temperature."

Corn

It's a trend that could cause North Carolina farmers to question whether corn is a viable crop for the future.

"There's a serious issue of whether we can continue to grow corn even if these temperatures average 95 or to 110 (The absolute hottest corn can be). We couldn't grow corn under those conditions," Heiniger said.

Sullivan remains optimistic because, as he jokes, he has to be. He also says it's up to the farmer to closely monitor the weather and crops.

"There's certain things that we have been able to do. We can vary planting dates. We can vary some things like that to try to fit a weather pattern," he said.

Heiniger's team plans to continue to monitor the temperatures in the coming years to come up with solutions to help farmers.

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