CONTRIBUTOR

Potatoes connect Aroostook County to world; climate change threatens what sets it apart

Potato fields in Aroostook County
Julia Bayly | BDN
Potato fields in Aroostook County
Posted June 15, 2014, at 10:06 a.m.

Growing up as the grandson of a potato farmer, I learned to love and appreciate the smell of dirt.

The growing season begins and ends with its scent, starting in the spring when the seed is planted and culminating in the fall when the tuber is harvested. Dirt is the aroma of prosperity in Aroostook County.

Our agriculture-based economy sets us apart from the rest of the state. Often we are told and subsequently convinced we live in geographic isolation. We’re inhabitants of the “sticks,” settlers of God’s country, part of Canada.

But when you think about it, the potato is what helps keep us connected to the rest of the country and the world. Our potatoes, branded with the red, white and blue Maine Quality Trademark, are shipped thousands of miles outside the state’s borders each year.

What if that prosperity were threatened?

According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment released earlier this year, the threat of climate change is very real. Climate change is no longer a distant danger or something to be worried about by future generations. It has moved firmly into the present, with impacts here and now.

The assessment states that agriculture in New England will be increasingly compromised. As weather patterns shift and temperatures rise, crops will encounter new and more resilient weeds, diseases and pests. This will reduce yield and quality. Going even further, climate change will cause more extreme and longer lasting weather events — such as rainstorms, thunderstorms, hail storms and tornadoes — that will drastically increase erosion to fields.

As we’ve seen over the past few growing seasons, such storms completely wash away existing crops and a majority of topsoil, costing millions of dollars to fix. As climate change causes the number and severity of such events to increase, it will wash away generations of continued hard work and prosperity of county farmers in a matter of years.

What if that prosperity could be preserved?

Earlier this month, the Obama Administration, through a proposal released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, made a historic announcement in the fight against climate change. The proposed rule seeks to reduce power plant carbon emissions nationwide by 30 percent over the next 16 years. Emissions will be reduced on a state-by-state basis in order to meet the national goal. For Maine, that means a 13.5 percent decrease.

States have flexibility in how they reach their goal, including improvements in energy efficiency and conversion to cleaner power sources, such as wind, solar and natural gas. Carbon emissions are a key contributor to climate change. In the U.S., about 40 percent of all carbon emitted into the atmosphere comes from power plants.

The beneficial effects of the EPA proposal will be felt in The County. It is a major step forward to manage a pivotal contributor to climate change, thereby reducing the extreme weather and novel pests our potatoes are likely to encounter.

We owe it to ourselves, as residents of a county we identify with so closely and proudly, to get the most out of this ruling. Become part of the discussion. Ask leaders at the national, state and local levels to pledge their support for limiting carbon emissions.

We cannot pretend we are isolated from the impacts of climate change, especially when it threatens the mainstay of our economy. Climate change is often veiled in imagery of stranded polar bears, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. But the issue hits closer to home.

Very few understand the beauty and significance of a crisp October morning, the temperature still below freezing and the air filled with the smell of dirt. For three short weeks, we race to uncover a year’s worth of labor and toil, waiting with anticipation each dawn to see what the dirt holds. This image represents what it means to be from The County: a people rooted in the tradition of harvest.

What if this is the image that changes?

Corey Park is a Master of Public Health candidate at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in the City of New York. He graduated from Presque Isle High School in 2008 and received a BA in biology from Colby College in 2012.

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