MECOSTA, Mich. — For generations, Brian Sackett’s family has farmed potatoes that are made into chips found on grocery shelves in much of the eastern U.S. About 25% of the nation’s potato chips start in Michigan, where reliably cool air during September harvest and late spring has been ideal for crop storage. That’s a big reason why the state produces more chipping potatoes than any other.
But with temperatures increasing, Sackett had to buy several small refrigeration units for his sprawling warehouses., he paid $125,000 for a bigger one. It’s expensive to operate, but it beats having his potatoes rot. “Our good, fresh, cool air is getting less all the time, it seems like,” he said on a recent morning as a front-end loader scooped up piles of plump, light-brown potatoes that would be packed into a tractor-trailer for shipment to chip factories.
The situation here illustrates a little-noticed hazard thatposes for agriculture in much of the world. Once harvested, crops not immediately consumed or processed are stored . The is making that job harder and costlier.
The annual period with outdoor air cool enough to store potatoes in Michigan’s primary production area likely will shrink by up to 17by the late 2100s, according to an analysis by Julie Winkler, a Michigan State University geography and climate scientist.
According to follow-up research publishedby plant physiology scientists, the window for unrefrigerated storage is also narrowing for apples in the Northwest and Northeast, peanuts in the Southeast, lettuce in the Southwest, and tomatoes in the Ohio Valley Courtney Leisner at Auburn University.
Techmark Inc., an agricultural engineering company based in Lansing, Michigan, designed the Sackett farm’s equipment. Co-owner Todd Forbush, whose customersgrowers of sugar beets, onions, and carrots, said storage of those crops increasingly would need refrigeration.
Growers will costs rise as the outside air gets hotter.about the economics of their operations. Producers who install equipment to regulate temperature and humidity will see power
“Whose pocket is it going to come out of? Probably the consumer,” Leisner said, adding that the potential effects of global warming on storage had been “largely ignored.”
“There’s a big disconnect in our minds about the chain of events between the field and theand onto our plate,” she said. “Just a few degrees can make all the difference in whether it’s economical to store the fruits and vegetables that we expect to have on our dinner table 365
Aside from potentially higher prices, climate change maycaused by spoilage. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, about 14% of food produced globally — and 20% of fruits and vegetables — goes bad between harvest and retail. Wasted food is a significant source of greenhouse gases.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, small farmers lose up to one-third of their stored grain to insects and mold, producing toxins. Tanya Struthers, an associate professor with the University of Greenwich’s Natural Resources Institute in London, will make rising temperatures easier for pests to survive winters.
Stored grain will be more susceptible to rotting, Struthers said.
“When people are getting production off just an acre or two of land, their margin foris shallow,” said Jake Ricker-Gilbert, a Purdue University agricultural economist. He has worked in several African nations, including Malawi and Tanzania.
A leading storage hurdle for delicate fruits and vegetables in the U.S. and Europe comes immediately after harvest when temperaturesdecay. Deirdre Holcroft, a previously for Dole Food Co. Inc, is especially vulnerable to lettuce and leafy greens such as kale.
Climate change is “going to add more and more pressure into the system,” Holcroft said.
In Mecosta, Michigan, the Sackett potato operation needed only fans to cool down freshly dug potatoes to 60 degrees (15.5 degrees Celsius) or lower and keep them there for months.
A computer-controlled system pulls in outside air, which industrial-sized wall fans blow across a humidifying pad. Floor slats in the 16 storage bins enable the air to rise through mounds of potatoes, regulating their temperature and moisture so they won’t dry out or get too wet and spoil.
But as the weather warms, it isn’t always enough.
During the 1990s, there were three years when Michigan’s average temperature in September and October was above normal. The 2000s had six such years. From 2010-2020, the total rose to eight.
Sackett began investing in small refrigeration units about a decade ago. The larger, custom-made device he got last year can be wheeled around to different bins, helping calm.
“Not a cheap purchase,” he said, adding that another may become necessary.
What all this means for the price of a bag of potato chips isn’t clear. But producers will have to offset their rising costs somehow, said Forbush of Techmark, the equipment company.
“We as a society need to do a better job of not wasting food,” he said. “If we don’t put the necessary energy into storing that product, it could worsen.”
Follow John Flesher on Twitter: @johnflesher.