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Climate change presents opportunities for nontraditional regions, growing systems

The U.S. fruit and vegetable industry has unofficial boundaries that mark important growing regions that both consumers and industry members recognize, like Florida for citrus, Washington for apples, Idaho for potatoes and California, the salad bowl of the country.

While we know that is a simplistic assessment of the U.S. specialty crop industry, it’s true that factors like geography, nature, labor markets, access to water, government regulations and various other issues play a role in shaping the entire fruit and vegetable industry from coast to coast.

For example, we know that access to water and government regulations are two of the biggest issues facing California growers, while Florida and Texas growers are experiencing more extreme weather events, along with pest pressures that have put some traditional crops at risk and in production decline.

On the other hand, Midwest growers have less government restriction and less urban encroachment while seeing changing weather patterns as opportunities that are extending the growing season.

At Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), as we considered these changing realities, we partnered with Kitchen Table Consultants to evaluate the state of the Midwest fresh fruit and vegetable industry.

The goal of the project was to better understand the unique challenges and opportunities of the region, how these differed from more traditional specialty crop producing areas and determine how EFI’s workforce development programs could support Midwest growers.

The results were enlightening: growers talked not about climate change, but about changing weather patterns and how those pattern shifts had created opportunities to test new specialty crop varieties not previously suitable for the growing region. They even discussed the possibility of extended growing seasons and the prospect of high-efficiency greenhouse production not previously open for consideration.

In fact, it’s these unique discussions around things like greenhouse production that show how specialty crop producers are addressing challenges, but also meeting trends head on.

Midwest growers often have challenges accessing skilled farmworkers due to the lack of year-round crops. Exploration and expansion of high efficiency greenhouses not only provide opportunity for year-round production, but they also meet trends to utilize more labor-saving technology and offer sustainable, locally-grown solutions consumers and buyers are demanding.

Over the last two years as the pandemic has lingered and problems in logistics have grown, there has been an increasing amount of dialogue about diversification and de-risking of food systems.

It seems that expansion of non-traditional growing regions and even non-traditional growing systems offers opportunities to utilize technology and logistic advantages while building on sustainability and social responsibility efforts.

While making generalized notions of the challenges that producers face would be foolish, there is one generalization that we stand behind at EFI: people are key to overcoming any challenge and investing in human development is essential for our industry’s success.

Access EFI’s free educational resources for grower-shippers at www.equitablefood.org/tools-resources.

LeAnne Ruzzamenti is marketing communications director for Equitable Food Initiative.