In this post, we continue a previous interview with Ruby Woodside, a Thomas W. Haas Climate Fellow at the University of New Hampshire, who recently completed a series of case studies on climate change resiliency on farms in New England.  Picking up where we left off:

CSA:  Were these farms innovating and figuring out adaptation strategies on their own?  Or were there sources of information that they and other farmers can look to for guidance on specific ways of becoming more resilient?

Ruby: Most of the farms had networks that they were involved with, both formal organizations and informal relationships, through which they were sharing information and ideas. Almost everyone mentioned the importance of a supportive network, especially as small businesses. Some farmers mentioned that they attended conferences and workshops on a regular basis, and many said that venues such as farmers markets served as a space to talk with others and Greens close vert_Cheryltroubleshoot. Each state seems to have a different set of resources; I heard great things about UVM Extension. One farmer spoke about the value of open source technology; keeping technology and innovation accessible (without patents) allows people to learn from the work of others and adjust innovations to fit their own needs. At the end of each case study I included a few resources for further information that the farmer being interviewed had identified as helpful.

Specific to climate change, several farmers said that they looked for help in dealing with new or increased pests and diseases. This is especially true if pests were new to the area and farmers were unfamiliar with them. Farmers mentioned reaching out to neighbors, extension specialists, or simply looking up management strategies on the Internet. As many pests and diseases are shifting regions as climate changes, having a broad network was very important in order to access information from farmers more experienced with a particular challenge.

CSA:  Looking back at all of the farms, do you see common threads that enabled the farmers to be prepared and to make concrete steps toward adaptation?

Ruby: Yes: being flexible and preparing for the worst while hoping for the best! I also think this is a common thread in any successful business. Farmers that planned for many different scenarios seemed to be the most successful in taking advantage of opportunities. For example, farmers might plant a field knowing that the crop could be lost due to either flood or drought (depending on the location). Successful farmers would have a plan in place for this event, and know exactly how much of their business was at risk. Plans could include a backup crop, alternative sources of income, insurance, or simply replanting a fast growing crop in the same area. This means that in the worst-case scenario, farmers would not be absolutely devastated by losses. Along the same lines, this allowed farmers to take advantage of the opportunities presented by changes in climate. For example, the flexibility to plant an extra crop at the end of the growing season, despite the risk of frost, meant that farmers might have an extra harvest. Again, these seem to be practices that many farmers traditionally do anyways, however the pressures from climate change make it more vital for farmers to be opportunistic, and have plans in place for failure.

Also, I know this is very general, but the most resilient farmers seemed to be the most open minded and creative. This means the willingness to try new things (and the careful planning so that if the “new things” fail, all is not lost). For example, one farm switched production entirely from dairy to livestock. This was not specifically in response to climate change, but I think is a great example of the types of shifts that many people may have to make as the environment changes. Other creative ideas included a corn maze on the farm, teaming up with other producers to access larger markets, and hosting community events on site.

CSA:  What would you tell young, or beginning, farmers who are in the planning or business development stage of farming, in terms of accounting for the risk posed by climate change?

Ruby: Have a solid business plan, and know your profit margins. That way you know which products are most important to the business, and can make good risk management decisions. Also try to incorporate a financial buffer right from the start. This could be from a greenhouse, some type of off-season production, or finding a way to roll over surplus from one year to the next. One of the biggest threats from climate change seems to be the unpredictable and extreme weather. A financial buffer helps farmers “weather the storm.” As we talked about before, I think diversification is also very important, and building up a strong network.

CSA: Finally, where do you see the food system in New England moving in the future?  Will farmers be able to develop climate change resiliency, and what needs to happen to ensure long-term sustainability?    

Ruby:   I was really encouraged to see the great work that is happening all over New England in terms of supporting a sustainable food system. Food Solutions New England is doing a great job of building a regional network. There are so many people that care about their communities, care about their food, and are thinking creatively about what a healthy food system should look like! Yes, I definitely think that farmers can develop climate change resiliency. They already are; farming is a difficult and dynamic livelihood, and farmers have been adapting to the environment and markets for a long time.

I think that a sustainable regional food system needs farms of all scale. Small family farms are important, but of course all of our food cannot come from CSA’s and farmers markets. I think we need to support policies that help both small and middle-sized agriculture. I also think that working at a regional scale is important. In a region as diverse as New England, we are luck to have many different types of production. This means that many of our dietary needs could feasibly be fulfilled regionally. A strong regional food system also increases our food security and resilience to disruptive climate change.

CSA:  Thanks so much for sharing with us!

Ruby: Thanks for taking the time to connect with me!