HARRISBURG, Pa. — A group of about 50 people convened at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association on Tuesday to talk about climate change.
There were media people there to talk to other media people about how the media should present the issue of climate change to the people who read, listen to and watch mostly legacy media.
Legacy media include newspapers, magazines, television and radio.
Lancaster Farming was represented at the meeting by Anne Harnish, who edits the food and family section of the paper, and by yours truly, who has no particular assignment.
The PNA holds a Sharon Johnson Memorial Workshop every year to honor the memory of the late reporter for The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News. From what I saw at this week’s conference, the purpose of the workshops wasn’t to explore a topic so much as it was to figure out how to communicate about it. Last year’s topic was the opioid epidemic.
The workshop was about helping journalists figure out how to write about it and talk about it.
The title of this year’s workshop was “Reporting on our evolving climate.” “Evolving” as in “changing.” Nobody at the workshop asked, “Is climate change real?” The workshop participants to a person, I would venture to say, didn’t need to be convinced that our world’s climate is changing, and that humanity is the biggest force behind the change.
I am in total agreement with the rest of the people who were in the room. I know that as a reporter, I have to keep an open mind about the things I cover, including science. I put scientific knowledge into three categories:
• Basic science: Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The moon’s gravitational pull causes tides.
• Settled science: The polio vaccine has kept millions of people from getting that disease. Plant a wheat seed in the right soil, and with the weather on your side, you get wheat.
• Exploratory science: Is there water on Mars, and if so, could it ever have supported primitive life forms? Let’s put a fancy Radio Flyer on Mars and see what we can find out. What happens if we make a computer circuit really cold? Let’s chill it down to as close to absolute zero as we can get — minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit — and see what happens.
Climate change is settled science. I don’t say “I believe climate change is settled science.” I say it is settled science. I don’t “believe” water freezes at 32 degrees. I know it. I don’t “believe” a wheat seed transforms into a wheat plant. I know it. I don’t “believe” that humanity is the agent of climate change. I know it.
I’m going on at some length about this because I’m an older gentleman and hope to spend the remaining years of my career — whether that’s six months or six years — focusing as much as possible on environmental issues and how they relate to agriculture. There’s lots to write about. Climate change, soil health, conservation practices, riparian buffers, government regulations, public sentiment, farmers’ thoughts and practices ...
... lots of stuff.
Anne Harnish has taken the lead in putting together a monthly series of articles to appear in Lancaster Farming next year. Reporters on staff will report on a range of subjects that can fit comfortably under the environmental umbrella. Each report will include an interview with at least one farmer.
I haven’t quite processed all the things I tried to absorb at the PNA workshop. There was a lot of material and a lot of presenters. There were two keynote speakers, four hour-long panels, and 23 panelists, including meteorologists, a ship’s captain, TV and newspaper reporters, two very impressive teen members of US Youth Climate Strike, a politician, the president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, an economist, an ecologist, and a psychologist.
The one workshop message that struck me the most came from Jon Nese, a multi-credentialed meteorologist who teaches at Penn State. He said, “Don’t quote politicians and celebrities. Quote scientists.”
Seems like good counsel, and I’ll try to remember it.
There was one farmer at the workshop. Carl Helrich prefers to call himself a grape grower and winemaker rather than a farmer. He has 25 acres of wine grape vines in York County, Pennsylvania. The vines need to be tended when they’re doing well and replanted when they’re not. He worries about his vines. He worries about the weather. He makes his own wine and sells it directly through mail orders and the three retail stores he owns. He sets his own prices, which is admittedly a lot different marketing structure than the average dairy or hog producer.
But he drives a tractor in the vineyard, drives a pickup to meetings, and wears sturdy boots. So for the purposes of this bit of reporting, I’ll call him a farmer.
Herlich said he bought the vineyard in 1996 after a varied career that included detasseling corn as a high school student in Kansas, driving 25-foot wide combines following the wheat harvest as it moved north from Oklahoma to Montana, driving a truck and making fine furniture until he met a woman from State College who thought it would be fantastic to have a farm.
Helrich opted for being a grape grower. Grapes are touchy about the weather. Temperamental, even. Too much water and the vines can swell up and die. A cold snap in the spring can kill buds and wipe out a harvest. Last year, the temperature on part of his vineyard dipped to 4.7 degrees and actually killed an acre and a half of vinifera vines. Vinifera grapes are used to make the kinds of wines that made regions of France and Germany famous — Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Gewürztraminer.
Higher high temperatures and lower lows are part of the climate change scenario, and Helrich’s 2018 season hit the lowest low he’d seen since he bought the vineyard. Replanting an acre and a half of vines will cost him about $25,000 for the vines plus $10,000 in labor costs. He’ll lose the income from 500 to 1,000 cases of wine, which will be another $100,000. So he took a $150,000 hit on his 2018 harvest.
“You plant vines for your children,” Herlich said, “and it takes about 10 years for a vine to reach break-even. Losing $150,000 at a clip isn’t sustainable.”
But for now, he’s optimistic about his children’s future.
Higher temperatures aren’t the concern that low temperatures are because vines do better when it’s warm and when the growing season lasts a few extra weeks. “We’ve always had a challenge getting the fruit to ripen in this part of the world,” he said.
“So while climate change can be good for grapes, it’ll be good for the wrong reason.”