Echoing Extremes

Earlier this month, on June 6-7, I was back in Washington, DC, this time for a meeting of the USDA’s National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education and Economics (NAREEE) Advisory Board. The Board advises the Secretary of Agriculture and Congressional ag committees on issues relevant to research and the three Es in its title. My fellow NAREEE Advisory Board members and I were appointed in Fall 2021, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this was our first in-person meeting. And it unfolded under a dense cloud of smoke from wildfires burning hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away, in Canada.

Three weeks later, on June 26-29, I found myself in Napa, CA, hosting NGRA’s Midyear Board meeting, and attending the Climate Change Symposium produced by the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) in conjunction with its 74th annual conference—the first of which was held in 1950. In a cosmic coincidence, that’s also the year of the single largest recorded wildfire in North American history. Canada’s Chinchaga fire was sparked in British Columbia on June 1, 1950, and raged through October of that year, burning an estimated 3.5 million to 4.2 million acres. The Chinchaga fire also produced the “Great Smoke Pall” of 1950, which was observed across North America and even in Europe. Without today’s global news reporting network, some feared the haze signaled nuclear Armageddon.

As June 2023 concludes, our own modern “smoke pall” has returned to the Northeast and Midwest, with Chicago reporting the worst air quality reading of any major city in the world on June 27. At the same time, temperatures near or above 110 degrees are baking the South and even Northern California, where NGRA is based. Of course, this scorching heat follows late spring deep-freezes in the north. Extremes on extremes.

The NAREEE AB I mentioned above reports in to the USDA’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, who spent time with us at our meeting. She talked passionately about USDA’s commitment to a “productive agricultural enterprise that’s profitable and sustainable, where all farmers benefit.” But Chavonda was careful to note that “sustainability in the context of climate change is not the same as resilience.” Farmers are, by nature, resilient, she said. “Production agriculture requires constant innovation and adaptation” to whatever Mother Nature brings.

Applying growers’ innate sense of resilience to the research and discovery, development and adoption of climate-smart solutions is how we’ll sustain our industry. Scientists are on the case—not just at USDA but at research institutions across the country. They’re seeking to understand and mitigate the impacts of the extremes we routinely see in our lives, on our vines and across our acreage—extremes that have been building and compounding for decades.

Taking their cues from industry stakeholders like you, grape researchers are breaking down the chemistry of smoke exposure on grapes and wine and racing to develop mitigation strategies. They’re working to decode the biomechanics of heat- and drought-tolerant vines and apply those traits to more susceptible varieties. They’re spinning out innovations to mechanize and automate more labor-intensive tasks to, yes, improve production efficiency, but also minimize workers’ exposure to hazardous air quality and dangerous temps.

Much has been done in each of these areas and a lot more work lies ahead. But as we cope with climate extremes, maybe it helps to know solutions are on the way.

Donnell Brown,