Changing climate poses a challenge for farmers in southeast Wisconsin

Posted at 12:37 PM, May 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-07 13:48:31-04

There are a lot of new normals lately. We're adding one more to the list, but this one doesn't have to do with masks, zooms meetings, or social distancing. This is about a new climate normal.

In the weather department, when we talk about normal, or average, we are making a comparison. How does today's weather compare to average, or where we might expect to be for a certain time of year?

Those normals, or averages, are based on 30 years of data. The last data set was from 1981-2010. The updated data set, recently released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, looks at 1991-2020.

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This information includes temperature, precipitation, snowfall, heating and cooling degree days, frost and freeze days.

Tim Halbach, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the Milwaukee National Weather Service, spoke with us about the changes.

Changing climate poses a challenge for farmers in southeast Wisconsin

"There are different trends happening in different parts of the United States, and that's where this analysis comes in, to help out with saying, 'you know who's warmer, who's colder, who's getting more rain and snow,'" Halbach explained.

What does the change mean for Southeast Wisconsin?

"There are different parts of the year we are seeing different trends. Looking at the last ten years, our normals are higher now for temperatures. It looks like for Milwaukee, we are looking at about two degrees warmer on the whole. We're seeing a little bit of a drier trend with a few months in the summer like July and August, and then also in November and December. We're also seeing more snow in February," Halbach said.

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While the average Joe may not notice some of these small changes, Joe Ertl does.

"To me, it seems like the seasons have changed," Ertl said.

Joe Ertl and his family own Grandpa's Place in Raymond. They are regular vendors at the West Allis Farmers Market.

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"I'm the 4th generation. My great grandfather started the farm, my grandfather took over from that, then my mom and dad, then my family and my brothers, and now their kids and my grandkids are carrying on the tradition here," Ertl said.

He has worked this land season after season and says every year has its challenges.

"Last year you couldn't walk in that garden, there was so much water. And now this year, I could go out there work, any part of it anywhere. It would break up nice. It would be perfect for planting because it's been so dry," he said.

Ertl keeps a close eye on the weather.

"I write down the weather every day on my calendar; I've got calendars from 10 years ago," Ertl told us.

Over the years, he has noticed changes.

"The springs are different than they used to be, and the falls are different. We're adapting to it," Ertl said.

Fifty miles northwest, in Helenville, Lindsay Knoebel had to take measures the second week of May to protect their 20 acres of strawberries against late-season frost.

"Strawberries are one of the most sensitive crops. If that flower gets destroyed, it's done for the season," Knoebel explained.

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Knoebel has been working on her family farm, Jelli's, for the last eight years, and she's seen differences early in the growing season.

"We have noticed the last couple years, as far as temperature-wise, it has been a little cooler a little bit later, especially in April. We've seen cooler temperatures, and now it's starting to go into May, the little bit cooler," she said.

While they haven't made any changes yet, they may have to in the future.

"If this cool weather lasts longer the next couple years, if it lasts longer, we will have to manage and move our date back of when we uncover our strawberries," Knoebel said.

Farmers face a variety of challenges every year, and a changing climate will add one more to the list.

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