Florida farmer Randy Haire says growing datil peppers on Florida’s First Coast, just south of the Georgia border, can drive him nuts.

The 2005 hurricane season — which brought Katrina to the Gulf Coast — “beat hell out of my datil pepper plants,” destroying Haire’s greenhouse and hundreds of plants. When heat waves descend on his fields, his peppers simply shut down. “They get over 90 degrees and they don’t even want to bloom,” Haire says.

Heavy tropical storms give his peppers “wet feet” — soaking their roots and making the plants susceptible to a fungus disease. “And then,” he continues, “you remember hearin’ on the news about all those thrips that came in from Africa, landin’ here in Florida? Well, I believe just about all of them thrips that came over from Africa ended up landing right here. I mean right here.”

You don’t hear from too many people like Haire in media stories about climate change. But he is one of several farmers quoted in the 2011 book, Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along The Pepper Trail, which examines how the world’s changing climate is affecting food production — specifically chile peppers.

The authors of Chasing Chiles, Kurt Michael Friese, Kraig Kraft, and Gary Paul Nabhan, chose to profile chile peppers for many reasons. The food’s deep cultural connection to the Western Hemisphere and the authors’ own love for chile peppers were two. But their book uses chile peppers to give voice to an often ignored character in the changing climate story: the people who grow our food.

Those are important voices that shouldn’t be missed, and they offer journalists another way to frame their reporting, and add a face and a name, on climate issues too often seen as remote and detached. Nabhan, a featured speaker at the recent annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers in Flagstaff, Arizona, is a conservation biologist and research scientist at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona. In addition, he is a renowned nature writer regarded as a pioneer in the local foods movement.

Neither Gore nor Limbaugh, but ‘Someone from the Field’

“This is not the kind of texture and tone of climate change (discussion) that we get from Al Gore or Rush Limbaugh,” Nabhan said of Haire’s description of the challenges he faces in Florida. “This is someone from the field who’s experiencing it each day and has his own vocabulary for dealing with it. I believe that our mistake in letting scientists be the sole spokespersons about climate change in many of our stories is that this authentic voice … (is what) we really need now more than ever before.”

Climate change reporting, when it focuses on agriculture at all, typically comes in only two flavors, Nabhan said. One type of story reports on the projected long-term effects of continued warming, which to most Americans doesn’t seem connected to the tangible realities around them. The other type of story, typically covered by agriculture reporters, reports on and quotes farmers coping with a major acute weather event — a freeze, drought, or storm — which may or may not have anything to do with overall climate change.

Nabhan said he wants to see stories that draw connections between long-term climate studies and the real shifts in weather that farmers across the United States are talking about. “Maybe a [particular weather event] is not directly connected to climate change, but these kinds of challenges we expect to see more of,” Nabhan said.

For those perhaps not inclined to follow the reporting itinerary of Chasing Chiles, Nabhan offered details about another ongoing story worth covering: the catastrophic drought in Texas, Arizona, and Northern Mexico.

After 2011’s six months of virtually no rain in much of the state, Texas last year applied for federal disaster relief for about one-third of its counties, Nabhan said. By late October in Oklahoma and Texas, 600,000 head of cattle had already been sold off early by ranchers who couldn’t afford to buy hay, which had skyrocketed in price from $117 a ton to more than $400 a ton.

Farmers with well rights along the Rio Grande had seen water levels drop precipitously, and requests by farmers to drill new wells in West Texas and New Mexico were multiplying.

“We’re seeing a tremendous shift in the agricultural production economy of the region that we’re in right now,” Nabhan said during his talk in Flagstaff.

“While the cattlemen are selling their animals off making no profit, the prices for beef are the highest they’ve been at any time since WWII because 38 percent of the country’s corn crop is going into ethanol this year,” Nabhan continued. “In Iowa, it’s 58 percent of the entire corn crop going into ethanol, rather than animal feed. For the first time in history, Iowa is a net importer of corn.”

Crisis Reporting … But No Follow-Up

These and other stresses on the nation’s farmers should receive more public attention, Nabhan said. And while a single weather disaster may or may not be fueled by ongoing climate change, scientists have said that continued warming of the globe’s average temperature is expected to lead to more and greater weather extremes, and more chaos and unpredictability.

All too often, reporters will visit a farmer right after a crisis, but they don’t follow up, Nabhan said. “After the reporters go home, (farmers) are dealing with collateral damage for multiple months,” he said.

Mark Barnes, a Florida chile and cantaloupe farmer profiled in Chasing Chiles, spoke in the book about struggling with the aftermath of a tropical storm. “The damn thing put down tweeent-tee-four inches of rain right on top of us,” Barnes said. “My soils usually drain off quickly, but this time we were flooded. My fruit was floating. My entire cantaloupe crop was actually floating away, my investment down the tubes.”

Nabhan, Friese, and Kraft wrote in Chasing Chiles that the idea behind their book was simple. “We wanted to listen first-hand to the seldom-heard voices in our food system, rather than taking what bureaucrats in the USDA or the Farm Bureau were saying as the gospel truth. We wanted to see with our own eyes how farmers, farmworkers, food marketers, and chefs were already responding to variations in rainfall, temperature, the duration of the growing season, and the frequency of hurricanes, tornadoes, hailstorms, and floods, as well as the movements of insects, viruses, and bacteria. All of these factors directly affect our food supply, and ultimately, our food security and capacity for survival.”

Pockets of Farmers ‘Doing Incredible Things’

During his talk in Flagstaff, Nabhan said some farming organizations, such as The Washington State Grange and Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition, are helping farmers in the West adapt to climate change, and also urging Congress to adopt legislation that addresses climate change.

Another project in the Northeast, called ClimateandFarming.org, offers farmers resources to cope with consequences of warming temperatures. The project is sponsored in part by Cornell University and the University of Vermont.

“There are pockets of farmers doing incredible things to help us mitigate or adapt to climate change,” Nabhan said.

“Farmers are some of the most interesting people to talk to about climate change, because they’re out rolling with the punches and trying to deal with it everyday.”

Check out these links for more background material and recent stories on the intersection between climate change and agriculture:

Sustainable Agriculture: Growing a Row of Climate Change,” written for The Yale Forum by Jackleen de La Harpe

Agriculture and Food Supply” (U.S. EPA)

Climate change: Impact on agriculture and costs of adaptation” (International Food Policy Research Institute)

Agriculture and Climate Change” (Meridian Institute)

Climate Change and Sustainable Agriculture” (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition) (see bottom of webpage)

High and Dry: Southwest drought means rising food prices

Hotter, drier, meaner: Trends point to a planet increasingly hostile to agriculture

Climate Change: Africa May Be Worst Hit, Says UNIDO

Droughts could push parts of Africa back into famine

Bees, plants waking up earlier each spring

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...