By Maggie Kimberl

The corn ultimatum

Could climate change spelt the end for your Bourbon?
I’ve been growing tomatoes my whole life. In Kentucky if you sow a few tomato plants on the Derby weekend, you can expect to start getting tomatoes by Independence Day and you’ll harvest a bushell by early October. In the last few years, however, my tomatoes have grown just fine and even produced a few green fruits here and there, but they never seem to ripen. After a little research I discovered that tomatoes won’t ripen if the sustained temperatures are more than 85 degrees. I’ve started to wonder whether climate change was coming for my prized plants.

As I have been researching corn from every angle, I made a startling discovery: people started telling me about their difficulties planting in the spring, worrying they weren’t going to get a good yield this year. The spring was too wet to plant enough and what did get planted was then hit with a hot and dry growing season. Those growing small grains like wheat, rye, and barley seem to be having an even tougher time. It made me begin to question: is Bourbon under threat from climate change?

“We are currently harvesting and unfortunately it is too soon to give a definite answer,” says Jeptha Creed founder and master distiller Joyce Nethery. “Some of our fields we were able to plant on time as they were dry enough and others we did not plant until too late into the season because of all the rain. The fields were simply too wet to plant. Those fields we expect to be almost total losses. Also driving through Kentucky we have noticed other corn fields that look as rough as our fields that we were unable to plant until late into the season.”

"It made me start to wonder: is Bourbon under threat from climate change?"

This problem will hit farmer-distillers much harder than large distilleries. After the Bourbon industry evolved from farm distilleries to commercial distilleries, the modernisation of agriculture turned cash crops like corn into a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market en-masse. Large distilleries can purchase corn from other regions of the country when there is a shortage locally, which will drive the price up for those farmers who have the good fortune to be able to produce enough.

For the small farms that support small-scale distilleries and farmers in the corn belt, times are looking tough.
“We intended to plant 1,300 acres of corn,” says Whiskey Acres vice president, Nick Nagele. “We only planted 185 and very late, in marginal conditions. Literally started and finished planting corn on the same day. We’ll have more than enough to make whiskey, but we won’t have much leftover for commodity marketing.”

It’s too early, however, to determine whether this is just a bad growing season or a new pattern to which farmers will have to adapt. My tomatoes certainly haven’t fared any better and we’re going on three or four bad years in a row. Is this a sign of what’s to come, or just a bad season?

“I don’t know,” says Whiskey Acres Distilling Co. president, Jamie Walters. “This is the first time in our history we were unable to plant a significant portion of our acreage due to unrelenting, wet, spring weather. It is too early to say whether there is a pattern to be established or not. The length of our growing season has increased a small amount due to small changes in temperature. On net, this is actually a positive for us as a longer season is beneficial to yields.”

The farm-to-table movement has brought interest back to farming that was lost during the industrialisation of farming decades ago. As a result, small-scale farmers are reviving old heirloom varietals and cross-hybridising them to achieve new strains. This interest could be one of the saving graces of our farming system should this turn out to be related to climate change.

But it’s important to note that it’s far too early yet to determine whether climate change is coming for your Bourbon. The commodity market will keep these distilleries going as corn will be able to be sourced from other growing regions when absolutely necessary. Between the commodity market and heirloom hybridisation, the farming industry has the tools and the potential to respond to whatever mother nature throws at it. Let’s hope Bourbon isn’t affected.