Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Farmers unwittingly adjust to climate changes

The Ohio wine industry has been getting more and more dependent on French grapes over the last 30 years. The vinifera, or French grape, the species of grape known to produce the world's best and snootiest wines, is very tender, which would make sense since it is adapted to a Mediterranean climate. But for the last few decades Ohio winemakers, and those in many other temperate regions, have been planting more and more vinifera to replace the good old American grape varieties they used to grow. American grapes, like Concord, the grape juice grape, and French-American hybrids are much hardier in the normal Midwestern winters—or what used to be known as normal winter. But American grapes are better known for producing juice or sweet wines, while hybrids have never been able to compete with the old French standbys in wine quality in the eyes of the Wine Spectator crowd.
An Ohio vineyard testing the limits
Regions like the West Coast have climates much like that of France, and it's in places like this where vinifera thrives. But before climate change began to bring milder winters (devasting floods and hurricanes) to the rest of the country, wineries were forced to look to American grapes, and to breeders to develop cold hardy French-American hydrids, in order to have productive vineyards to base a business on. Vinifera vines could not survive most Midwestern winters without a down coat, only questionably able to survive as low as -10 degrees F at their hardiest.

But as the climate has changed over the last few decades, the tender vinifera has crept into the locally-made wine market in the Midwest. It started out as a sort of testing of the waters, with a few renegades planting small vineyards and finding the grapes could survive most winters in the new era of 400 ppm. After a few were successful, they attracted the attention of others who saw dollar signs. Ohio wineries realized that their hardy native grapes didn't produce the kind of wine that demanded top dollar, and didn't produce what is the socially-accepted definition of good wine. So they scrapped their American vines and replaced them with the much more valuable (and vulnerable) French vines. It's unlikely that any of them suspected they were only able to grow the vines now because the climate was changing and the world was gradually warming.

All primary buds on these vinifera were killed. Secondary and tertiary buds sprouted. Many vines died back to the ground.
Then last winter, Ohio winegrowers were surprised by a sudden change in their mild winters. The warming arctic had pushed the polar vortex from its normal position atop the globe. Huge acreages of the state's vinifera vines were wiped out by the frigid winter. Those that did survive died back to the ground, saved only by a thick cover of snow that insulated their roots against the far below zero temps.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Amazing and Versatile Sorghum

When I was living in Madison, I had the opportunity to garden alongside many Hmong people in the city's community gardens. The Hmong had come to the US as refugees of the American secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War. They brought with them many of the crops they'd been accustomed to growing in the mountains of Laos. They'd brought to this country their own varieties of vegetables like cucumbers, onions, chili peppers, yard long beans, sorghum, and even opium poppy. Because I was so interested in their unique vegetables, I asked for seeds so I could grow them myself.

The Hmong sorghum was a sweet sorghum, a plant not unlike sugar cane that produces a sweet liquid in its stem. The Hmong gardeners would use the plant by simply cutting down the stalk and then cutting the stem at each node. The hard surface of the stalk was then peeled, exposing a liquid filled pith that could be chewed and sucked dry of all its sweet nectar. I'd eaten sugar cane before then, long ago when I was in Nicaragua, but never sorghum.

Growing out the seed of the sweet sorghum, I discovered that the seed head was reminiscent of a grain I'd remembered seeing grown locally where I was in Nicaragua. It's seed heads were much more compact and the grain much larger than the other kind of sorghum. Though I didn't know it then, I'm pretty sure that was a variety of sorghum grown to be ground into a flour and used like wheat or other grains.