To begin our project, we’d like to highlight a collection of case studies of farms recently completed by Ruby Woodside, a Thomas W. Haas Climate Fellow at the University of New Hampshire.  Her work was sponsored in collaboration by Food Solutions New England, a network devoted to transforming the New England food system for the better.  Ruby’s case studies, all 12, are available for reading and downloading through the UNH Sustainability Institute.  They cover a diverse mix of farms, from aquaculture to fruit and vegetables,Steer in pasture and many are just a couple pages long.  I encourage you to dive in, and to enjoy and learn from the breadth of climate change adaptation strategies contained within.  A few of the farms may not be that different from your own.

To dig in a bit deeper, Joshua Faulkner of the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) was able to connect with Ruby, to ask her a few follow-up questions on the case studies:

CSA:  First, congratulations on the fellowship, and on the final product.

Ruby: Thank you! It was a great experience, and I am thrilled that people are reading the cases. I loved meeting so many different folks involved in the food system, and want to acknowledge everyone who took the time to speak with me.

CSA:  The more we travel around, the more we hear farmers talking about the need to be ‘resilient’.  After interviewing these farmers, how would you define ‘resiliency’, in terms of farming and climate change?

Ruby: Yes, a lot of farmers talked about being resilient, and in most cases it meant some type of diversification. I had always heard the argument for diversified production, and of course we know the dangers of monocultures and how vulnerable that can be. Most of the farmers I interviewed mentioned the importance of growing different products; ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket!’ as one farmer put it. So I think that is definitely key in being resilient to climate change. It really is something that most small farmers try to do anyways, especially with the famously erratic New England weather. In addition to diversifying production, farmers mentioned diversifying their income and markets as a method to increase resilience. This is more of the business model side of the equation. If farmers rely solely on Community Supported Agriculture or a few wholesale accounts, then that also makes them vulnerable to changes, be it changes in the market or in their production. Many farmers also looked to add supplemental income that wasn’t directly from farm production. For example, hosting a workshop or finding a way to get paid for ecosystem services. This makes a lot of sense to me. So I think that resilience overall means diversified production, diversified sources of money coming into the farm, and a strong community support network.

CSA:  We know there are a variety of observed and projected climate impacts on farms in the Northeast (i.e., flooding, new pests, etc.).  Did one specific projection, or impact, rise to the surface as the primary concern for the farmers you profiled?

Ruby: Not really, but I think that is because each farm I visited was very different and in a different location. Many of the concerns are site specific. For example, the farms that I visited at the Intervale, VT, which are on a floodplain, were naturally most affected by flooding, whereas other farms felt that late summer drought was more problematic. It really depended on what they were producing and the specific geography of the farm.

I will say that almost everyone I spoke with noted that the weather seems to be getting more extreme and unpredictable. This was interesting to hear, especially as many of the farmers have been in the business their entire lives. These observations were not necessarily a part of the conversation about climate change, and in many cases I actually did not ask specifically about impacts of climate change. Instead I asked whether or not people observed any changing trends in weather patterns over the years. So that definitely stood out to me; whether or not climate change is on people’s radar, there are noticeable changes in the environment.

CSA: That confirms many of our observations and conversations as well.  We also hear that climate change is just one of many sources of risk for farmers.  Does that match up with your experience?

Ruby:  Absolutely. Climate change is not necessarily the primary concern for many of these farmers. Yes, people were worried about changes that they were noticing in the environment, and increased pressure from disease and pests, flooding, droughts, etc. Some farmers attributed these changes directly to climate change, and some did not.   However, on a day-to-day basis, farmers were facing numerous other challenges, ranging from how to finance a new infrastructure project to keeping livestock healthy to understanding complicated regulations to the daily grind of harvesting and getting products to market. I actually think that the most important thing is not how farmers are adapting to climate change, per se, but that they are able to make a viable livelihood farming and have the tools needed to do so in a sustainable way. With sufficient resources, it seems that small farms are naturally going to take steps to increase their resilience and viability. They are also going to use environmentally sustainable methods. I think that any way we can help make farming a profitable business and more holistically integrated into communities across the region will help increase climate change resilience.

We will continue the interview with Ruby in the next post, where we’ll ask about where farmers look for information on adaptation and Ruby’s thoughts on the future of the New England food system.