What Specialty Crops Might Thrive in the Northwest in the Future?

By Lauren Parker, University of California, Davis (formerly University of Idaho)

Closeup of blueberry plants, with fruit
Figure 1. Blueberries, a crop that has seen rapid growth in the Northwest recently. Photo: Jacqui Osbourne under CC BY-NC 2.0.

From Washington apple orchards to Oregon blueberry fields and Idaho’s burgeoning vineyards, the Northwest is well-known for its agricultural abundance (Figure 1). Specialty crop production across the three states is a multi-billion dollar enterprise and, like virtually all agricultural systems across the region, will be challenged by climate change (Houston et al. 2018).

Climate change is also projected to impact California specialty crop production (Lobell et al. 2006), lowering yields of some crops and perhaps entirely eliminating the production of others. As warming temperatures reshape where the climate is suitable for perennial crops in California, some specialty crop growers in cooler regions like the Northwest may benefit.

Over the coming decades, the Northwest is projected to see warmer winters, longer growing seasons, and more growing degree days each year. These changes could mean once-too-cool Northwest farmlands will be suitable for growing warmer-climate crops. However, warmer temperatures may pose their own challenges for cool-climate specialty crops already in place, including driving changes in when crops need water and how much.

In order to assess how climate change may shift where the climate is suitable for growing specialty crops in the coming decades, Dr. John Abatzoglou and I developed climate suitability models for five perennial specialty crops: almonds, apples, blueberries, cherries, and grapes. Katherine Hegewisch, our team’s webtool developer, then created interactive web-based tools to visualize and explore the model results. This work, which builds on research we discussed in an earlier article, tracks whether temperature conditions are suitable for crop cultivation over the coming decades and identifies the potential factors – such as frost damage – limiting successful production. Because the suitability models rely on tracking crop development throughout the year, the timing of key crop phases like flowering and maturation can also be tracked and reported (Figure 2).

Left: map showing changes in phenology are most obvious in California. Right: bar graphs showing changes in number of days
Figure 2. Screenshot from our web-based tool. Development timing is represented as the onset of phenological stages: budburst, bloom, and maturation. Changes between the historical average and future averages are represented as an advance (-) or delay (+), in days. The values represented are obtained from the results of 20 different climate models, and reflect the mean date of that stage’s onset over a 30-year timeframe.

Temperatures aren’t the only determining factor driving where certain crops are grown; water is another critical component to crop cultivation, particularly for perennial crops that need water year round and cannot easily be fallowed or easily replaced with drought-tolerant varieties. Most perennial crop growers in the Northwest rely on irrigation to satisfy their crops’ water demands. In order to help growers identify whether they may have enough water to meet crop needs under future climate conditions, we also modeled crop water demand relative to water availability from precipitation and soil moisture in order to estimate just how much of a crop’s annual water needs would have to be met with irrigation (Figure 3).

Left: map showing increased irrigation need, again most notably in California. Right: bar graph quantifying changes in irrigation need
Figure 3. Another screenshot from our web-based tool. Irrigation needs show the median amount of irrigation water requirement, in inches, across the 30-year timeframe. Irrigation needs are provided for those locations where at least 50% of the climate models showed at least 50% of years to have cultivation success.

The results from the modeling efforts for the five specialty crops we examined are largely positive for Northwest growers. Warmer temperatures may allow for the geographic expansion of these specialty crops across the region. Almonds may thrive along the Snake River south of Nampa, ID in the coming decades thanks to less frost damage, while Cabernet Sauvignon may expand as far north as the Okanagan Valley of north-central Washington owing to longer and warmer summers.

Warmer temperatures and drier summers may also raise irrigation water needs, and total irrigation water demands may increase by approximately 10-25% by the 2050s, depending on crop and location. Though this may be a challenge in drier years or in more arid regions, irrigation management strategies could provide means to mitigate for increased water demands while maintaining agricultural productivity.

As climate change continues to pressure agricultural production, these model results showing future crop suitability, development timing, and irrigation water needs can serve as tools in the agricultural industry’s toolbox when considering future crops and investments in the region.

Please check out a recording of a webinar we recently gave that details a suite of web tools for agricultural decision makers, including the crop suitability tools. For more information on the model specifics, visit Climate Toolbox: Future Crop Suitability and check out the information available under the Documentation tab.


Houston, L., Capalbo, S., Seavert, C., Dalton, M., Bryla, D. and Sagili, R., 2018. Specialty fruit production in the Pacific Northwest: adaptation strategies for a changing climate. Climatic change, 146(1-2), pp.159-171. Online Access

Lobell, D.B., Field, C.B., Cahill, K.N. and Bonfils, C., 2006. Impacts of future climate change on California perennial crop yields: Model projections with climate and crop uncertainties. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 141(2-4), pp.208-218. Online Access