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    Fig. 1.

    Distribution of orchards in Michigan. The section of the Lower Peninsula outlined in black represents the region typically referred to as the “fruit belt.” The data for this plot were retrieved from the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture (NASS 2019).

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Uncertainty in the “New Normal”: Understanding the Role of Climate Change Beliefs and Risk Perceptions in Michigan Tree Fruit Growers’ Adaptation Behaviors

Julia LinderaProgram in the Environment, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

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Victoria Campbell-ArvaibSchool for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

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Abstract

In the midwestern United States, intensifying impacts from climate change necessitate adaptation by the agricultural sector. Tree fruit agriculture is uniquely vulnerable to climate change due to the long-lived nature of perennial systems, yet very few studies have addressed how fruit growers perceive climate change and are responding to climate risks. For this study, 16 semistructured interviews were conducted with Michigan tree fruit growers to understand how their climate change beliefs, beliefs about adaptive actions, and climate-related risk perceptions influence adaptation behaviors. While there was a great deal of uncertainty about the anthropogenic nature of climate change, growers generally agreed that unprecedented changes in climate and weather patterns were occurring. Because of a perception of little control over future climate impacts, most growers reactively adapted to climate risks that negatively impacted their orchards by implementing measures such as frost protection, irrigation, pesticides, and crop insurance. This study highlighted that while proactive adaptations such as crop diversification, planting new varieties, and improving soil health will be necessary to increase farm resilience in the future, growers were unable to justify making these changes due to their uncertainty about future climate changes. The findings from this study highlight the need for future outreach efforts by university extension agents, private agricultural advisors, and federal and state agency advisors to provide educational information on the long-term impacts of climate change in order to help growers increase the resilience of their farm in the face of future climate impacts.

Supplemental information related to this paper is available at the Journals Online website: https://doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-20-0058.s1.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Julia Linder, jllinde@umich.edu

Abstract

In the midwestern United States, intensifying impacts from climate change necessitate adaptation by the agricultural sector. Tree fruit agriculture is uniquely vulnerable to climate change due to the long-lived nature of perennial systems, yet very few studies have addressed how fruit growers perceive climate change and are responding to climate risks. For this study, 16 semistructured interviews were conducted with Michigan tree fruit growers to understand how their climate change beliefs, beliefs about adaptive actions, and climate-related risk perceptions influence adaptation behaviors. While there was a great deal of uncertainty about the anthropogenic nature of climate change, growers generally agreed that unprecedented changes in climate and weather patterns were occurring. Because of a perception of little control over future climate impacts, most growers reactively adapted to climate risks that negatively impacted their orchards by implementing measures such as frost protection, irrigation, pesticides, and crop insurance. This study highlighted that while proactive adaptations such as crop diversification, planting new varieties, and improving soil health will be necessary to increase farm resilience in the future, growers were unable to justify making these changes due to their uncertainty about future climate changes. The findings from this study highlight the need for future outreach efforts by university extension agents, private agricultural advisors, and federal and state agency advisors to provide educational information on the long-term impacts of climate change in order to help growers increase the resilience of their farm in the face of future climate impacts.

Supplemental information related to this paper is available at the Journals Online website: https://doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-20-0058.s1.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Julia Linder, jllinde@umich.edu

1. Introduction

Climate change has already had large negative impacts on agricultural production, and these challenges are expected to worsen in the future (Cho and McCarl 2017; Lengnick 2015). In the Midwest region of the United States, the past several decades have been characterized by increasing average temperatures, earlier warm spring temperatures, reduced snowpack, and increased overall precipitation, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events (Wuebbles et al. 2017).

Perennial tree fruit crops are particularly sensitive to these climate changes, as yields are highly dependent on temperature and weather patterns during key growing phases (Luedeling 2012; Rodrigo 2000). Perennial fruit trees adapted to cold winter climates experience a winter dormancy period when growth ceases in order to protect the plant from frost damage (Vegis 1964). After a certain number of “chilling hours,” the plant resumes growth (Vegis 1964). Increasingly warmer winters may prohibit tree fruit crops from attaining winter chill requirements, which can negatively impact bloom patterns and crop yield (Luedeling 2012). In addition, warmer winters and earlier springs may lead to more “false springs,” when freezing temperatures occur after plants breaks dormancy (Allstadt et al. 2015; Vegis 1964). Michigan tree fruit growers experienced a particularly harsh false spring in 2012, when record-breaking warm March temperatures in the Great Lakes region brought many trees out of their winter dormancy early, extensively damaging developing fruits when normal subfreezing temperatures returned (Ames and Dufour 2014; Labe et al. 2017). Consequently, growers in Michigan lost $500 million in tree fruit products, leading the federal government to designate most of the state as a natural disaster area (Ault et al. 2013). Multiple studies have projected that the risk of false springs like the one that occurred in 2012 will continue to increase in the future as a result of global climate change (Allstadt et al. 2015; Augspurger 2013).

The impacts of climate change necessitate adaptation by the agricultural sector. Adaptation involves the implementation of behaviors and technologies that buffer systems from anticipated climate change and take advantage of new climate dynamics (IPCC 2018). Agricultural systems must continually adapt in order to build resilience to changes in climate (Folke et al. 2010); with resilience defined as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” (Walker et al. 2004). Most adaptation options currently used by tree fruit growers moderate harm associated with climate change and increasingly variable weather, including frost protection methods and irrigation systems (Kistner et al. 2018). However, planting fruit varieties that are more resilient to climate extremes and a better fit for projected growing conditions is an adaptation strategy that takes advantage of what the climate will be like in the future (Houston et al. 2018; Kistner et al. 2018).

Adaptation strategies for perennial agriculture are particularly complex due to the time requirements for many perennial crops to reach maturity (Glenn et al. 2014). With shifting growing seasons, it may seem that the most logical response to climate change is for agricultural growing regions to shift accordingly. Simulators such as the Climate Toolbox future crop suitability tool have been developed to show how climate change may shift and expand suitable growing regions for certain crops (Hegewisch et al. 2020). Indeed, Cho and McCarl (2017) found that from 1970 to 2010, climate change had actually contributed to shifts in the growing regions for several major annual crops, for example, wheat, corn, and soybeans, as farmers adapted their growing practices to fit changing conditions. However, unlike annual field crops, perennial specialty crops cannot easily move regions due to the long reestablishment periods and the large investments in time and skilled labor necessary to achieve an overhaul of this nature (Ames and Dufour 2014). Orchards may be in production for up to 30 years, and a rapidly changing climate means that new plant varieties that are adapted to current climate conditions may not be as well suited to the local climate that will be experienced a few years hence (Glenn et al. 2014). Lane et al. (2018) found that perennial fruit growers in the Northeast, which will experience similar climate change effects as the Midwest (Bryan et al. 2015), perceived they had fewer adaptation options for the reasons noted above.

These complexities make adapting tree fruit agriculture to the changing climate uniquely challenging and speak to an urgent need to understand the risks that climate change poses for tree fruit agriculture and how farmers are currently responding to these risks (Wolfe et al. 2018). Further, understanding how tree fruit growers perceive climate change and adaptation strategies may help researchers and university extension professionals improve outreach, education, and technical support for climate change risks and associated adaptations, which may help increase orchard resilience in the future.

2. Background: Farmer climate change perceptions and adaptation behaviors

Farmers’ beliefs related to adaptive actions and climate change, in addition to perceptions of climate risks, may play an important role in their uptake of climate adaptation behaviors. The theory of planned behavior (TPB) is a behavioral framework that predicts an individual’s behavioral intentions as an outcome of attitudes toward the behavior, subjective norms, and perceived control over the behavior (Ajzen 1991). More specifically, behavioral intentions are a product of (i) positive and negative beliefs about the outcome of a behavior or action, (ii) beliefs about the expectations of significant others (family, friends, and colleagues), and (iii) perceptions of the barriers to (or ease of) the behavior in question (Ajzen 1985, 1991). The TPB has been used to explain and predict both behavioral intentions and actual behaviors across a wide variety of contexts, including health (Hamilton et al. 2020) and sustainability (Yuriev et al. 2020). An increasing number of studies, however, have used the TPB to both understand and predict a variety of agricultural practices, including the adoption of nutrient best management practices (Doran et al. 2020), on-farm diversification (Senger et al. 2017), frost protection (Kazemi et al. 2018), and climate adaptation behaviors (Zhang et al. 2020). For example, Artikov et al. (2006) measured farmer attitudes toward weather forecasts, beliefs about expectations from significant others (e.g., friends, family, university extension personnel, and bankers), and beliefs about their own ability to respond to forecast information. That study found that all three components of the TPB significantly influenced forecast use by these farmers; and a similar pattern of support for all components of the TPB was reported by Senger et al. (2017) and Zhang et al. (2020). Overall, these studies point to the importance of understanding the psychology of farmer decision-making and in determining the specific factors that are most strongly associated with the uptake of practices to improve on-farm environmental performance and productivity (Senger et al. 2017). Insights from the TPB can also point to the best content (e.g., to increase positive beliefs about a particular adaptive strategy or to augment feelings of efficacy) and channels (e.g., those who are trusted sources for information) for meeting the information needs of farmers (Artikov et al. 2006).

Perceptions of risk and susceptibility have been suggested as important additions to the TPB, particularly in the adoption of actions that mitigate or protect individuals and property from harm (Rezaei et al. 2019). Risk perceptions in the context of climate change, often measured as overall concern with or assessment of the threat of climate change, play a significant role in the adoption or rejection of climate-protective and mitigative behaviors in general (Leiserowitz 2005), with perceptions of climate risk strongly and positively associated with support for policies and actions to address climate change (Goldberg et al. 2021). Recent research has additionally shown that, beyond typical sociodemographic factors like political orientation, personal experience with extreme weather contributes to the formation of climate risk perceptions (van der Linden 2015) and the adoption of mitigation and adaptive measures (Demski et al. 2017).

There is, however, limited research on perennial specialty crop growers’ climate change–related beliefs and risk perceptions. A study of apple growers in North Carolina found that most growers attributed changing environmental conditions to natural variability rather than anthropogenic climate change (Veteto and Carlson 2014). Similarly, Gareau et al. (2018) determined that Massachusetts cranberry growers are skeptical of the threat of global warming. While the small sample of studies focusing on perennial grower perceptions makes it difficult to draw conclusions about perennial crop growers’ climate change beliefs and perceptions, research on large-scale crop growers across the United States may provide insight into farmers’ climate change beliefs.

Numerous studies, using diverse research methods and goals, have been conducted of U.S. annual crop farmers’ climate change beliefs and adaptation decisions (Chatrchyan et al. 2017). This research illustrates a great degree of variation in climate change beliefs among farmers. A survey of upper Midwest corn–soybean farmers revealed a high level of uncertainty regarding climate change. In this study, only about 40% of farmers endorsed the view that climate is changing partly or fully due to human activity, while nearly 25% of farmers attributed climate change to natural cycles, and the remaining 35% were uncertain about whether climate change was occurring or did not believe it was changing at all (Morton et al. 2017). Similarly, a review of 10 quantitative studies on farmer climate change beliefs in the United States concluded that farmers have more uncertainty about climate change than the general public, and there is a “significant lack of clarity” among farmers about the anthropogenic nature of climate change (Chatrchyan et al. 2017).

Some research has found that farmers’ belief (or lack thereof) in anthropogenic climate change impacts adaptation behaviors. Arbuckle et al. (2013a) reported that while 66% of large-scale Midwestern crop farmers believed climate change is occurring, only 8% believed it is anthropogenic, and those that favored anthropogenic causes were the most likely to support adaptation action. However, it is unclear whether belief in climate change is necessary for farmers to adopt adaptation practices. Chatrchyan et al. (2017) found in their review that while most farmers did not need to believe in climate change to adopt adaptation measures, adopting climate mitigation actions, for example, enhanced soil carbon sequestration through reduced tillage, required a belief in climate change. This may be partly explained by the fact that many farmers are engaging in climate adaptation behaviors without connecting their normal management practices to climate change adaptation (Doll et al. 2017). While measures such as pesticide application and crop diversification are important climate adaptations, these strategies have also been commonly used as weather management practices long before there were widespread concerns about climate change (Wall and Smit 2005). In addition, several climate adaptations have short and medium-term benefits regardless of climate impacts. For example, soil building provides fertility and improves fertilizer efficiency, which immediately benefits tree health (Ames and Dufour 2014). Thus, growers may choose to adopt these practices regardless of their belief in anthropogenic climate change (Doll et al. 2017).

In comparison with belief in climate change, risk perceptions associated with climate changes may play a larger role in adaptation decisions (Mase et al. 2017; Schattman et al. 2016). A study of corn and soybean farmers in Iowa found that climate change beliefs were not associated with farmers’ attitudes toward climate adaptation, whereas perceptions of climate risks were important predictors of adaptive actions (Arbuckle et al. 2013b). Similarly, Haden et al. (2012) found that adaptation behaviors among a group of grain, vegetable, livestock, and fruit farmers in California were determined by their perceptions of local climate risks rather than a belief in global climate change. However, there is disagreement about how farmers form climate risk perceptions (Schattman et al. 2018). For example, some studies have found that belief in anthropogenic climate change leads farmers to perceive greater climate risks than those who do not believe in anthropogenic climate change (Niles and Mueller 2016; Spence et al. 2011). However, other studies have found that farmers’ personal experience with climate impacts are more important to the development of risk perceptions than belief in anthropogenic climate change (Carlton et al. 2016; Menapace et al. 2015).

Despite the lack of clarity about how climate risk perceptions are formed, multiple studies agree that most farmers can cite specific changes in climate that pose risks to their operations (Castellano and Moroney 2018; Doll et al. 2017; Lane et al. 2018). For example, Jemison et al. (2014) found that the majority of 199 Maine farmers that participated in focus group interviews believed that weather was becoming increasingly variable and harder to predict, despite not necessarily attributing these changes to global climate change. Many studies on farmer risk perceptions have been concentrated in the northeastern states, where farmers have cited that warmer temperatures, more sporadic and severe precipitation, and changing growing seasons are the greatest weather and climate-related risks they face (Jemison et al. 2014; Lane et al. 2018; Schattman et al. 2018; Takahashi et al. 2016). Climate change is projected to affect the Northeast and Midwest in similar ways (Bryan et al. 2015), and the two studies that focus on risk perceptions among Midwestern farmers identified similar concerns as farmers in the Northeast, including warming temperatures and increases in extreme precipitation patterns (Arbuckle et al. 2013a; Doll et al. 2017).

While the body of research on farmer climate change perceptions and adaptation behaviors is growing, there remains a large gap in our understanding of how perennial fruit crop growers make climate management and adaptation decisions. Due to the long life cycle of perennial crops, it is likely that fruit growers have a unique perspective about the long-term climate changes that may impact their farms. To address this research need, qualitative semistructured interviews were conducted in order to understand how tree fruit growers in the western region of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula perceive climate change and its associated risks, and how they are addressing these risks through adaptation decisions. This type of approach allows the researcher to gain a detailed understanding of how stakeholders perceive key issues of concern in their own words and provides the means to capture unique perspectives that may be lost through quantitative approaches like closed-ended survey questions (Silverman and Patterson 2014).

3. The present study

This study sought to address the following research questions:

  1. What are Michigan tree fruit growers’ perceptions of climate change and what are the main climate-related risks they identify for their farms?

  2. How are growers adapting to the climate-related risks they have identified?

  3. What are growers’ perceptions of these adaptations and what are the major barriers to adoption of these adaptation measures?

To this end, we used qualitative interviews with tree fruit growers to address questions about (i) perceptions of climate change and of climate-related risks to their farm; (ii) adaptation strategies, barriers to their adoption, and beliefs about the efficacy of these strategies; and (iii) information sources and networks of influence. Our qualitative interview guide was informed by the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen 1991). This theory provided an overarching theoretical perspective for the psychological factors that have been shown to influence farmer decision-making related to the adoption of on-farm conservation and climate adaptive measures, that is, positive and negative beliefs related to the behavior in question (adaptation strategies), social norms (the influence of others), and perceived behavioral control (the ease or difficulty of adaptation). We note that our intent was not to test the TPB as an explanatory model of farmer behavior, but rather to use the model as a guide for our qualitative interview questions, follow-up probes, and data interpretation. These factors were examined in addition to farmers’ climate risk perceptions (where appropriate) and experience with extreme weather events.

With a more nuanced understanding of how growers perceive climate change and make important adaptation decisions, this study seeks to provide actionable recommendations for university extension and other support personnel to improve the content and dissemination of climate change adaptation information to tree fruit growers. Ultimately, this study will inform strategies to more effectively address growers’ primary concerns about climate change and available adaptation options, support growers’ decision-making by meeting their information needs and addressing logistic barriers, and increase the resilience of orchard operations in the face of a changing climate.

4. Methods

a. Study location

Michigan is a leading producer of tree fruit in the United States, producing 68.9% of the country’s share of tart cherries, as well as a considerable proportion of the country’s apples (10.4%) and sweet cherries (6.4%) [National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) 2017]. Fruit is the second most valuable crop group in Michigan following field crops, and fruit production was valued at $535 million of the state’s $4.38 billion crop industry in 2016 (NASDA 2017).

This study focused on growers in the western region of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan along the coast of Lake Michigan, a region is known as the “fruit belt.” Michigan’s tree fruit production is concentrated in this region due to the moderating effect of Lake Michigan, which reduces temperature extremes and the threat of frost damage during the winter dormancy period (Andresen and Winkler 2009). According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture [National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) 2019], 95% of orchard land in Michigan is located in the 21-county western fruit belt region (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Distribution of orchards in Michigan. The section of the Lower Peninsula outlined in black represents the region typically referred to as the “fruit belt.” The data for this plot were retrieved from the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture (NASS 2019).

Citation: Weather, Climate, and Society 13, 3; 10.1175/WCAS-D-20-0058.1

b. Data collection and analysis

Between May 2018 and January 2019, 16 semistructured interviews were conducted with 18 Michigan tree fruit growers in the “fruit belt” region. Two interviews were conducted with husband–wife teams, and these were treated as single interviews. Participants included both orchard owners and managers in charge of growing practices and farm management decisions. The study was reviewed and deemed exempt by the University of Michigan Institutional Review Board (IRB), and it adheres to standards for ethical research. Informed consent was obtained from all participants prior to beginning the interviews. Five interviews were completed in person, and the remaining 11 were conducted over the phone. To establish an initial sample, a list of tree fruit growers was compiled using online public farm directories, including “Taste the Local Difference,”1 the Michigan Apple Committee,2 and Orange Pippin.3 A total of 85 orchards with publicly available contact information were identified within the study range, which were contacted by phone and email. Twelve individuals agreed to interviews through this recruitment effort. Because of a low initial response rate, participants were invited to identify other farmers to contact; thus snowball sampling methods were relied on to help identify four additional participants fitting the study criteria. The sample size was determined by data saturation, which is defined in interviews when the researcher stops hearing new insights in responses (Grady 1998). Recruitment ended when researchers determined saturation was reached. Demographic characteristics of the farmers interviewed are included in Table 1.

Table 1.

Demographic information for interview participants (1 acre= 0.4 ha).

Table 1.

Prior to interviews with these tree fruit growers, an initial in-person semistructured interview was conducted with a tree fruit expert associated with the Michigan State University Extension service. The purpose of this interview was to gain a better understanding of the largest issues facing Michigan fruit growers and to create a semistructured interview guide that better reflected the unique experience and context of participants. This interview guide (see the online supplemental materials) was divided into four sections: 1) background on farming experience and farm specifications; 2) perceptions of climate change and on-farm climate and weather-related risks; 3) adaptation strategies, beliefs about the efficacy of these strategies, and potential barriers to their adoption; and 4) insights on trusted information sources and connections with other growers and university extension specialists. In addition to the TPB, the interview guide was informed by studies with similar research questions, including Lane et al. (2018) and Schattman et al. (2016). The interview guide included 20 questions but was semistructured to allow the participants to answer questions in a natural manner and in their own words. In addition, the semistructured approach allowed for the emergence of novel themes during the interview process. To the extent participants were comfortable and willing, the interviewer explored each question on the interview guide through probes and follow-up questions. Because of the politicization and polarization of the terms “climate change” and “global warming” (McCright and Dunlap 2011), the authors chose not to directly ask growers about their belief in anthropogenic climate change. Instead, growers were asked about their perceptions of “increasingly variable weather” and “changing climate conditions” to understand how they perceive these issues without tipping toward defensiveness or political debate.

All interviews lasted between 20 and 55 min. Fourteen of the semistructured interviews were audio recorded and later transcribed for analysis using NVivo 12 qualitative analytic software. The remaining two interviews were not audio recorded at the request of the interviewees, and detailed handwritten notes and memos were recorded instead. These transcripts and notes were coded using a general inductive approach, which allowed for the identification of major themes (Thomas 2006). A second coder familiar with the topic of research independently coded a subsample of transcripts to ensure the validity and reliability of codes and themes drawn from the sample. Any inconsistencies in interpretations of codes and themes presented in the data were resolved through discussion (Thomas 2006).

5. Results

The interviews with Michigan tree fruit growers provided insight into growers’ perceptions of climate change and other risks facing the tree fruit agriculture industry, as well as how growers are adapting to these risks. The results from the 16 interviews are summarized in Table 2 and are discussed in more detail below.

Table 2.

Key themes resulting from qualitative analysis of interviews (N = 16). Numbers in parentheses represent the percentage of growers who mentioned the topic.

Table 2.

a. Climate change beliefs and perceptions

Despite the interviewer’s initial avoidance of the term “climate change,” all but one grower took the opportunity to discuss their perceptions and beliefs of climate change. The overriding theme across responses was the general uncertainty surrounding the causes of climate change, how the climate is currently changing, and what changes will occur in the future. Several growers noted that climate change seems to be occurring as based on personal experiences with changing weather and resulting crop losses. A few growers discussed these changes in terms of there being a “new normal” and the inability to rely on old rules of thumb such as “April showers bring May flowers.” One grower said, “What we would’ve called normal is no longer normal—so everything is becoming the new normal, if you will” (interview F).

While many growers expressed their belief in a changing climate, only three growers explicitly acknowledged a belief in the anthropogenic drivers of climate change, and eight others expressed uncertainty about the extent to which climate change is caused by humans versus natural variation. One grower said, “I know [the earth] is warming, but you wonder whether . . . is it due to the cycle of the earth, or is it due to man’s effect on the earth?” (interview Z). Some growers noted that variability has always been the norm with Michigan weather, which has made it difficult to determine what they could attribute to climate change or to normal variation. To highlight the perceived normal variability of Michigan’s climate, some growers told anecdotes of unusual weather patterns that their parents and grandparents experienced on their farms. One grower, after stating that rainfall patterns seem more extreme now, said:

It’s all on my gut, though. I don’t have any data to prove that the droughts are worse. I have a 93-year-old grandfather who talks about when it froze in June. I obviously don’t remember that, but he’s capable of telling me that story every year in the spring (interview A).

b. Risk perceptions

Regardless of climate change belief, all growers noted that they have experienced changes in climate patterns that pose risks to their farms, which were usually characterized as changes in weather patterns and conditions. The largest risk mentioned by all growers is that weather seems to have become increasingly variable and less predictable in the last several years. One grower said, “We’ve noticed, of course, in the last 15 years especially that the weather patterns have become more dramatic, more erratic, less predictable, less consistent” (interview D).

When asked how increasingly variable weather would impact their farms, growers discussed the general unpredictability and inconsistency of observed weather patterns that make it very difficult to effectively grow tree fruit crops. Growers perceive that this variability has introduced the increased risk of spring frosts, sporadic and extreme precipitation, and extreme temperatures. Among these risks, growers perceived that spring frost damage as a result of earlier springs was most concerning, as these events have the potential to cause devastating crop losses. They referred to years where spring frost damaged their trees and crops as “nightmares,” “devastating,” and “disastrous.” Growers perceived that these “once in a lifetime” or “once in a hundred year” events are happening more often. One grower explained,

In 2002 there were virtually no cherries . . . well not much in Michigan at all but the whole country was kind of short on cherries. And then our particular area up here, there were virtually . . . there was no fruit you might as well say. Or like, 10 cherries per tree. This is like once in a hundred-year deal. It’s not going to happen again, like, be another 100 years at least. Well 2012 it did it again, only it was worse (interview K).

Many growers were concerned with the possibility of milder winters in the future due to the possibility of reduced snowpack and interference with tree dormancy requirements that protect them from frost in the spring.
In addition, changes in pest and disease profiles were also a top concern for most growers. While changes in disease patterns were mostly connected to changes in weather patterns, the perceptions of what is causing the increasing pest risk was split among growers. Several growers connected the issue to a changing climate, while an equal number of growers viewed it primarily as an issue of global trade introducing more invasive species into the country. One grower expressed how he believes both factors are impacting changing pest conditions:

There have been new pests that have come in and having more mild winters . . . but mild winters in general mean less thorough of an insect kill. A longer season means that invasive pests can make it further and further north, basically. Sometimes that’s I think a factor of climate, but also in our increasingly connected world that we have a lot more opportunity to bring foreign insects in to the U.S. and then have them spread (interview R).

While most of the climate changes were perceived as risks to growers, some individuals did identify possible benefits from changing climatic conditions. The main potential benefits mentioned were the possibility of growing new varieties of crops due to the potential extended growing season, decreased pest and disease pressure during times of drought, and higher prices for crops during times of high crop loss. However, the discussion of benefits from these growers was heavily outweighed by the negative impacts of climate change.

c. Adaptation behaviors

Despite the perception of the overall lack of control over climate changes, most growers have taken measures to adapt to changes in climate. The three most common adaptation strategies were irrigation, frost protection, and use of agricultural chemicals like pesticides and fungicides. In addition, the use of crop insurance as a strategy to minimize the financial damage of crop loss was also used by more than half of the growers. Crop insurance was deemed particularly useful in years that spring frost damaged the majority of crops. One grower said, “What 2002 proved to me was I should buy crop insurance because you never know what’s gonna happen. Crop insurance pretty much covers our losses if we have a year like that” (interview H). Some growers perceived that insurance reduced the need to adopt other adaptations. One grower, when asked if they have considered frost fans, said “We do not use frost fans. We buy lots of insurance” (grower A).

While planting new fruit varieties was the fourth most frequently discussed adaptation strategy, few growers stated that they had actually planted new varieties that are more resilient to climate risks. However, 12 growers acknowledged that it would be a necessary step in order to adapt to a changing climate; thus, planting new varieties was perceived more as a strategy for the future. It seemed to be viewed a gradual adaptation that people will make as their orchards age or are damaged and are thus in need of replacement trees. One grower explained,

What most farmers can do, is that when they replant they need to replant into varieties that will better play to the fact that we are hitting colder extremes . . . you get smarter and you don’t grow those varieties [that can’t handle weather extremes] (interview J).

Adaptations that were mentioned by half or less of the growers include diversification, site selection, improving soil health, and organic methods. Several growers expressed that good site selection would reduce the need for other adaptations such as frost protection and irrigation. Diversification was mentioned both in terms of crop diversification and diversifying marketable products by selling value-add and processed goods, such as jarred preserves and dried fruit, which can be sold year-round. Despite the low adoption of these adaptations, when growers were asked what adaptations they would take to become more resilient in a changing climate given their perceived risks, the common responses were diversification, planting new fruit varieties, and improving plant and soil health. On the topic of diversification, one grower said, “For us being resilient is just the ability to grow different fruits so that if we have damage one year, we most likely will have at least one crop that didn’t have as much damage” (interview S).

d. Perceptions of and barriers to adaptation

Most growers in this study identified barriers to adaptation. The two main barriers were the high cost and feasibility of adopting adaptive measures. Cost was particularly prohibitive for the installation of frost fans. One grower said, “you have to have money to take these precautions. You know, wind machines—they’re 35, 40,000 dollars a pop” (interview J). Each machine only covers about 10 acres (1 acre = 0.4 ha), which further compounds cost barriers for orchards larger than this range (Irish-Brown 2013). Feasibility, while partly related to the ability to financially undertake adaptations, was often specifically linked to growing perennial crops, such as replanting trees and planning orchards with new varietals. There was a sense that growers felt stuck, as one grower said, “There is very little we can do. When you plant the trees, that’s an investment for 20 or 30 years. The options you have are very limited” (interview M). Another grower explained why he thinks it is more difficult as a tree fruit grower to make some of these adaptations:

In the row crop business it’s easier to see change, but in the fruit industry, we raise the same commodity for 25 years. We plant a tree and it’s there for 25 years. Have I considered planting trees that are from a more temperate climate, a warmer climate? Yes. But that’s not an easy change to make (interview A).

In addition to these barriers, some growers expressed concern about the effectiveness of certain adaptation technologies and strategies. This was often brought up by growers when discussing frost fans and organic pest protection. Specifically, frost fans are only effective in specific environmental conditions, and they often lose efficacy when spring nights drop more than a couple degrees (Fahrenheit) below freezing. Combined with high cost, this limited window of effectiveness was a major reason many growers did not find it worth it to install frost fans. In addition, several growers who had generally positive perceptions of organic methods mentioned the ineffectiveness of organic pest control methods as a reason they continue to use inorganic chemicals. One grower said,

I guess that’s the one part about this industry that I probably like the least, is all the chemicals we put on. I’ve looked really hard at the organic side, but it gets really labor intensive and they haven’t got the answers to all the bugs (interview Q).

Growers also had perceptions about their ability to effectively adapt to climate that impacted adaptive actions. Due to the variability of changing climate conditions, a common theme among growers was the inability to effectively predict future climate, and therefore the inability to properly adapt to changing climate conditions. Most growers felt they had no control over the changing weather. As one grower said, “It doesn’t matter what skillset or knowledge you have, the weather dictates what you end up with at the end of the season. So, it’s out of our control” (interview D). This perceived lack of control was frequently cited as a reason growers did not adapt as much as they felt they should. “Since we have so little control over climate change—it’s just weather—we have to just roll with it as it happens . . . there is very little we can do to change the impact on our orchards” (interview M).
Along with feeling a lack of control, the majority of growers stated that they feel like they have to adapt to the changing conditions as they occur. Common terms included “going with the flow,” “suffering through changes,” “rolling with changes,” and “taking it as it comes.”

The weather—it will cause long-term effects, but it’s not immediate. And you have a tendency as a farmer to kind of evolve with the weather and the make the changes and you just kind of go with the flow (interview E).

Growers mentioned that their lack of control over addressing climate risks required them to be emotionally resilient in order to deal with crop failures. One grower said they were “developing a really thick skin and getting used to [crops loss] ‘cause it is a new normal, but part of what it takes is emotional resilience. Otherwise you just drive yourself crazy” (interview F). Similarly, another noted, “If you’re gonna be in this industry, you’ve got to learn how to understand that there are things well beyond your control and you just deal with it. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be” (interview G).

e. Information networks and relationships with others

Information on adaptation strategies and climate risks came from the Michigan State University (MSU) Extension service and MSU research stations, other growers, and personal research. Overall, the interviews revealed positive collaborations among the growers interviewed for this study, with most noting regular consultation with other growers for information about management strategies to address emerging pests and diseases. Michigan growers noted access to a number of regularly scheduled groups to discuss these issues in both informal and formal settings, with formal meetings often in collaboration with MSU Extension.

6. Discussion

a. Beliefs and risk perceptions

The results of this study align with other studies that have found that while most farmers believe the climate is changing, they do not believe it is caused by human activity (Arbuckle et al. 2013a; Morton et al. 2017; Chatrchyan et al. 2017). While tree fruit growers in this study were not asked directly about their belief in anthropogenic climate change, many did spontaneously express uncertainty about the causes of climate change. This uncertainty seems to be due to the fact that many growers have experienced variable weather in Michigan for many years and have heard stories of variable and extreme weather from previous generations. Further, some growers did express a belief that climate change is partly or mostly due to natural cycles or natural variability. This is consistent with the limited literature on perennial crop growers’ climate change perceptions in the United States. For example, Gareau et al. (2018) found that cranberry growers in New England were not concerned about global warming because they perceived that they have always had to deal with a variable climate.

Regardless of climate change beliefs, most growers recognized that recent weather and climate trends have been unusual and perceive that the climate has changed to a “new normal.” Growers in this study viewed many of the same risks as most farmers in the Midwest region, including extreme precipitation, increasingly variable weather, and warmer temperatures (Doll et al. 2017; Lane et al. 2018; Mase et al. 2017). These risks also align with risks perceived by farmers in the Northeast (Jemison et al. 2014; Takahashi et al. 2016). While Michigan fruit growers perceived similar climate risks as farmers in these regions, the dynamics of growing long-lived perennial fruit trees make some of these risks uniquely challenging. For example, spring frost was rarely identified as a large risk in studies of annual crop growers (Jemison et al. 2014; Mase et al. 2017), but it was the largest risk for growers in this study due to the uniquely devastating impact it has on tree fruit crops. In addition, several other studies found that annual crop farmers see milder winters as a positive impact, as it allows new crops to be planted over the winter season (Jemison et al. 2014; Takahashi et al. 2016). However, warmer winter temperatures were a large concern for tree fruit growers, as temperate fruit trees such as apples and cherries require a certain amount of winter chilling hours to break winter dormancy and produce a healthy yield of fruit.

b. Adaptations

Despite being able to identify climate risks that have already negatively impacted their operations, tree fruit growers felt uncertain about how climate change will manifest in the future, leading to a sense of lack of control over climate change adaptation. Other studies have uncovered similar sentiments from growers, such as Yung et al. (2015) who found that ranchers in Montana felt they lacked agency to adapt to climate change due to their belief in the natural cycles of climate change. In our study, uncertainty about the future climate (and related weather patterns) impacted adaptation decisions more than belief (or nonbelief) in the anthropogenic causes of climate change. This result aligns with the TPB and its predicted role for perceived behavioral control (Ajzen 1991). While attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control all affect an individual’s intention to behave a certain way, an individual can only follow through on behavioral intention if the person perceives they can carry out a certain behavior (Ajzen 1991). For example, Doran et al. (2020) found that perceived behavioral control had the largest effect on farmer intentions to adopt nutrient best management practices. In the context of this study, adoption of adaptation behaviors may depend less on belief in climate change than on an individual’s belief that they can adapt in a way that will adequately protect them from perceived climate risks.

Inductive analysis of the interview transcripts led to the discovery of two broad types of climate adaptation used by Michigan tree fruit growers: reactive and proactive. Terms such as “reactive,” “proactive,” and “anticipatory,” have also been used to describe climate adaptations in previous literature (Lane et al. 2018; Smit and Skinner 2002). In this study, the definitions of these two categories are based on the IPCC definition for climate adaptation as practices that either “moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities” (IPCC 2018). Reactive adaptations are defined as measures used by growers to reduce harm from the climate risks they have experienced and are currently experiencing, and proactive adaptations are defined as measures that take advantage of the changing climate and increase orchard resilience for future climate change impacts. While there were discussions of both reactive and proactive adaptations, the majority of growers interviewed for this study have adopted reactive adaptation measures.

In this study, the growers’ perceptions of needing to “take things as they come” and “roll with the changes” often led to reactive adaptations. Similarly, a study of winegrowers in California also found that growers have mostly adopted short-term reactive adaptations to climate change (Nicholas and Durham 2012). Reactive adaptations—frost protection, irrigation, crop insurance, and pesticide application—deal with weather impacts and their consequences as they occur. Further, these practices had been used to manage weather risks before climate change became a large concern for agriculture (Glenn et al. 2014). Morton et al. (2017) found that Midwestern crop farmers perceived too much uncertainty in climate change to change their current practices, which aligns with how many perennial fruit growers felt in this study. Thus, while these were coded as “reactive adaptations,” growers’ implementation of these management strategies was likely not always with the specific intention to address climate change concerns. Niles et al. (2016) similarly found that New Zealand farmers did not adapt for climate reasons; rather, they likely adopted climate management strategies to increase their own productivity and profit.

In this study, Michigan tree fruit growers with crop insurance noted that it is one of their most important climate management strategies, particularly when it comes to managing the risk of spring frost. While climate insurance is becoming more popular across industries, and has the potential to increase climate resilience, there is growing concern that the use of insurance may act as a disincentive to adopt climate adaptive practices (Surminski et al. 2016). Bitterman et al. (2019) found that farmers in Iowa would not adopt adaptive strategies to climate perturbations, for example, irrigation and addition of organic material to the soil, unless they experienced significant financial losses. Crop insurance helped these farmers cope with the financial impact of crop loss, and thus further reduced the likelihood that they would adapt (Bitterman et al. 2019). It is possible that crop insurance may act as a disincentive among tree fruit growers to adopt climate adaptations, for example, frost management tools such as frost fans. Future studies should investigate the moderating effect of crop insurance on intentions to adapt to climate change, particularly among those who cultivate perennial crops.

Despite growers’ reliance on traditional management strategies, most individuals in this study were able to identify how the management practices they have used for many years, such as irrigation and pesticides, could potentially be used to address climate risks. These results stand in contrast to other studies that found that many farmers do not differentiate normal farm management strategies from climate adaptation (Doll et al. 2017; Schattman et al. 2016). It is possible that the high level of collaboration and trust between the MSU Extension and Michigan tree fruit growers contributed to this understanding among growers, as many MSU Extension resources, such as annual Spring Tree Fruit meetings (Tritten 2019), highlight adaptation opportunities for the growing region. Doll et al. (2017) suggested that the farmers’ difficulty distinguishing normal management practices from climate adaptations may have contributed to their inability to identify specific tools that could help them adapt to climate change in the future. This suggests that while tree fruit growers in this study were mostly adapting reactively, their ability to identify how current management practices could be used to address climate risks may be important for future adaptive actions.

Few of the tree fruit growers interviewed for this study were actively making proactive adaptations, despite growers’ investment in the long-term success of their trees. In contrast to reactive adaptations, proactive adaptations protect farms in anticipation of future changes in climate. These measures increase the farm’s resiliency through crop diversification, improving soil health, and planting fruit varieties that can withstand climate changes (Ames and Dufour 2014; Lin 2011). While most growers had a good understanding of how proactive measures could increase their farm resilience, the actual level of proactive adaptation to climate changes among growers varied widely. In line with the TPB, Niles et al. (2016) found that farmers’ intention and actual adoption of various adaptations by farmers depended on the farmers’ perception of their capacity and confidence in their ability to successfully adopt adaptation measures. Overall, our study aligns with Niles et al.’s (2016) findings, as growers had clear ideas of the best ways for them to adapt in the future but perceived a variety of barriers that prohibit them from doing so. Barriers to adaptation largely mirror the findings of existing studies, including high installation costs and labor availability (Lane et al. 2018; Takahashi et al. 2016; Doll et al. 2017). Feasibility is a unique barrier for tree fruit growers, as one of the most effective proactive adaptations may be for growers to switch to more resilient plant varieties, but replacing entire orchards is costly and labor intensive (Wolfe et al. 2018).

The interviews also highlighted how growers’ capacity to adapt to climate change is limited by their perceived lack of control over the changing climate. Rather than feeling confident in making adaptations due to the knowledge of an increasingly variable climate, growers instead felt like it was too risky to invest in adaptation strategies due to this variability. As a result, farmers were more inclined to buffer the risk of crop loss with reactive approaches like crop insurance. However, due to the long-term nature of perennial fruit agriculture, strategies that address long-term changes in climate are particularly important for building orchard resilience (Ames and Dufour 2014). It would be expected, then, that increasing the perceptions of behavioral control among farmers would increase the adoption of climate adaptations among farmers. Indeed, a study of New Zealand farmers found that perceived capacity to handle climate risks, including risks outside their own control, was associated with actual behavior change (Niles et al. 2016).

Further, the TPB may also shed light on farmers’ decisions to use both reactive and proactive adaptations. Based on interview responses, growers in this study articulated a feeling of control over completing reactive adaptations, as many of these management practices have been in the toolbox of farmers for many years. However, due to a perceived lack of control over future changes in climate, farmers may lack a sense of agency in preparing their farm for the coming changes, and thus underestimate or discount their ability to effectively implement proactive adaptations. This suggests that outreach communication should focus on material that gives farmers a more detailed sense of what Michigan’s fruit belt will look like in 30 years, in addition to visualizing specific changes they can expect to see in their orchards. These resources are not currently available for growers in the region, but the development of these tools would provide farmers with a more concrete sense of what they need to do over the short and long term to prepare for these changes, ideally contributing to increased perceptions of behavioral control.

c. No regrets

An additional strategy to increase perceived behavioral control may be through educating farmers on “no regrets” strategies. Woodruff (2016) argues how the uncertainty of future climate impacts must be built into climate change adaptation planning due to the variability and uncertainty across various climate projections. This author notes how uncertainty can be an asset to adaptation planning because it requires individuals to prepare for multiple scenarios. One example of how to prepare for multiple different climate scenarios is through the adoption of no-regrets strategies that are beneficial regardless of whether or how climate is changing (Woodruff 2016; Yung et al. 2015). Some studies have identified certain proactive adaptations, including the development of new crop varieties, diversification, and improving soil health, as no-regrets strategies (Hallegatte 2009; Yung et al. 2015). Framing these adaptations as no-regrets strategies may increase grower willingness to adopt these strategies despite uncertainty in future climate. However, methods like crop diversification and improving soil health are still prohibitive due to high start-up costs and the burden of learning new growing practices (Bradshaw et al. 2004). This is an area where university extension professionals could provide growers with technical support on how to introduce new crops and build soil health in order to reduce the barriers for growers to adopt proactive no-regrets strategies in the face of an uncertain climate future.

In addition, while growers sense a lot of uncertainty about climate change, all agree that weather patterns are changing. Thus, it may be more productive for outreach and education efforts to frame climate information in terms of “weather variability.” Other studies have also suggested that focusing climate change education on variable weather may be more effective, because farmers already think in terms of weather variability (Arbuckle et al. 2014; Jemison et al. 2014). This framing may help reduce confusion and uncertainty that surrounds the term “climate change” while still providing information about how climate will become increasingly variable in the future, including increasingly variable temperatures, precipitation, and extreme weather patterns (Arbuckle et al. 2014). By combining more accessible climate projection information with technical support on how to adopt no-regrets strategies, university extension educators and private agricultural consultants may be able to help growers transition toward the utilization of more proactive adaptation approaches.

d. Information networks and relationships with others

Interviewees did not report that subjective norms, that is, the actions of other growers, played a large role in their decision to adopt or reject climate adaptive behaviors. Indeed, the relatively weak role of subjective norms has been observed in many quantitative studies of TPB (La Barbera and Ajzen 2020). However, connections with other farmers may be an important way for growers to build resilience as a community. Several studies have found that strong community networks provide opportunities for individuals to work together to adapt to climate change, in addition to offering a source of emotional and psychological support in the event of climate disasters (Adger 2003; Aldrich and Meyer 2015; Worster and Abrams 2005). Additionally, growers in our study regularly collaborated with university extension services and agricultural consultants and trusted their expertise and advice. These relationships are important to ensure that information about climate change and adaptation options are received and acted on.

7. Study limitations

The conclusions from this study should be interpreted and generalized with care. While we are confident that our recruitment techniques provided a representative sample of participants (e.g., in terms of farm size and geographic distribution), it is possible that the supplemental snowball sampling approach missed some of the heterogeneity of the larger population of tree fruit growers in Michigan. For this reason, this study should be followed with larger qualitative and quantitative studies of tree fruit agriculture that mirror current literature on large-scale commodity crop agriculture and capture a broader sample of the population. Similarly, because of the sensitive nature of the topic (climate change and climate risk to orchards), interviewees may have withheld some of their beliefs and shared only what they believed to be socially acceptable responses. The strong alignment between our results and the work of others, however, suggest this is not a large concern. Despite these limitations, the perspectives and stories shared in these interviews provide valuable insight into how climate change is impacting tree fruit agriculture in Michigan and beyond.

8. Conclusions

This study highlights how climate change has already had large negative impacts on Michigan tree fruit agriculture; increasingly variable weather, spring frosts, extreme precipitation, and warming temperatures are the greatest concerns for growers. While the fruit growers in this study were keenly aware of how these climate change risks have already impacted their operations, they perceive a great deal of uncertainty and lack of control over future climate changes. Due to this uncertainty, growers have yet to take major proactive adaptations, and instead have responded to short-term climate impacts through reactive adaptations that contribute little to building orchard resilience. University extension education and outreach efforts should focus on providing growers with accessible information about how climate change will impact local agriculture. In particular, long-term projections that help growers visualize how climate risks may impact their farm in the future, in addition to technical assistance on no-regrets strategies like crop diversification and soil health, may give growers a greater sense of control over adopting proactive adaptations. Evaluating the effectiveness of providing perennial growers with long-term climate change projections and visualization aids to increase adaptation behaviors would be an interesting area for future research. These efforts, in combination with continued research on the perspectives and challenges of perennial farmers, are critical to providing tree fruit growers with the tools and support needed to increase their climate resilience.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank the farmers and orchardists who participated in this study and who graciously shared their experiences and valuable time. The authors have no known conflict of interest to disclose.

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