Category: climate change


“Flexibility is absolutely the key!” declares Karen Freudenberger, as she looks below where farmers Chuda Mahoro and Theogene Dhaurali are struggling to free one of the farm’s trucks stuck in the mud in a waterlogged pasture. Karen is the Pine Island Community Farm Project Manager, guiding it into existence as a working farm from a conceptual idea formed a few years ago. The majority of the pasture land on this farm is located in the floodplain of the Winooski River, in an oxbow and surrounded on three sides by the river. While extremely fertile, with abundant forage for the 200 or more goats that graze here, the chances of flooded conditions are often present.

While springtime has always been a time of expected flooding, in recent years it has become painfully apparent that flooding can and will happen just about any time of year.


But the grazing season of 2015 has shown the opposite can also be true. While June of this year broke records for number of inches of precipitation and cloudy days, August has been the driest on record for Vermont.


 

Stuck truck in wet pasture, June 2015

Stuck truck in wet pasture, June 2015

So what does flexibility look like? For the crew at Pine Island, it means the crops and gardens are not necessarily on the best agricultural soil.  Flexibility means a grazing plan that includes a “reserve” or “contingency” pasture on the higher ground at the farm that can be utilized at any time to accommodate animals for grazing, should the weather dictate the need to do so.


Flexibility means a grazing plan that includes a “reserve” or “contingency” pasture.  We must use major differences in the terrain here as it is needed,” Karen explains while watching the two farmers below. “We need all the areas, and we need to use them strategically.”


 

Pine Island Community Farm represents a partnership between the Vermont Land Trust and the Association of Africans Living in Vermont.  It supports New American farmers who wish to raise goats, chickens, or garden crops at the farm and sells pasture grown animals to families who wish to slaughter their own goats and chickens for meat.

It is a collaborative farm where each individual farm enterprise (e.g. Chuda’s goats) is run by the owner as his own small business.  Together, the business operations share the land, the barns, and the equipment.

Flood Plain Pasture,

Flood plain pasture on Winooski River, Pine Island Community Farm

Planning for the Unpredictable

Now in its second year of operation, and finding a rhythm with the land, livestock, and crops – the wild card remains the unpredictable weather fluctuations and learning how to work with that reality. The community gardens were placed on the upper plateau, even though the better agricultural soils are on the river plain below. But the risk of flooding and crop loss is too great on the lower level, and the financial impact could be devastating, so the decision was made to place them up above, requiring substantial amounts of soil amendments to increase the land’s fertility.


Now in its second year of operation, and finding a rhythm with the land, livestock, and crops – the wild card remains the unpredictable weather fluctuations and learning how to work with that reality.


The goat enterprise is even more complicated. Since most of them arrive in late winter/early spring as very young animals, it is particularly important that their pasture not be wet or even very damp as those are the conditions most favorable for the internal parasites that can take a young animal down very quickly. Planning for this means reserving a section of the upper plateau for the initial forays onto pasture at the beginning of the grazing season. The chances of this higher elevation land being drier are much better, and lowers the probability the young animals will pick up parasites.

Once the goats have grown in size, become good grazers, learned the process of following a shepherd, and the pasture below has dried up enough – they are taken down each day to fresh forage on the river plain. However, if there is a heavy rain event, the animals are often returned to the barn, and put on hay.

Moving animals prevents parasite intake and is seen as practice for general goat health. Goats traditionally come from dry environments, and have prominent back bones, so when conditions are extremely wet, they can sometimes get a deep chill, particularly young animals. So they are returned to the barn for cover until the weather eases up enough for them to be outside again. The frequency of this procedure has increased in direct correlation with the heavy precipitation events – again an increase in cost due to the extra time and labor involved.

Barnyard and fencing at Pine Island Farm

Barnyard and fencing at Pine Island Farm

This June and July have proven to be exceptionally wet, and circumstances have pushed the farmers to start utilizing any areas they can find with reasonably dry pasture. Chuda explains how it affects his day and makes for inefficient labor.

“We must spend a long time scouting around for any new dry area, mowing a strip to accommodate fence set-up, putting the fence in place, and bringing the animals there. Normally, long strips would be mowed where several days or even a couple of weeks’ worth of fence line can be set up and a new paddock made each day using the section from the previous day’s paddock as the animals are rotated onto new forage each day”. The labor invested is much less when the paddocks can be made in consecutive blocks, or even close by instead of wandering all over the river plain.

This season has pushed everything to the limits. Because of the record breaking rain and wet conditions, pastures have been slow to dry up and many still have standing water in places, prohibiting their use. Livestock have been restricted to sacrificial paddocks or barnyards and fed any reserved hay from the previous season.

But for many, even the reserve stash is gone. For the same reasons, haying has been delayed and many farmers have not been able harvest any, so without any new crop, and reserve supplies depleted, the only choice is to import feed from far away – a costly solution – or eek out any small opportunities close by. This means resorting to a “hunt and pick” type of operation, seeking any bit of dry pasture land that can be found to set up a grazing paddock. The inefficiency brings a greater cost to all – time spent looking and setting each area up takes a good portion of the day, and a watchful eye kept on it all should there be a need to quickly get the animals back to high ground.


Karen says, “This year has really pushed us to understanding the need for back-up reserves, and getting better at planning for that”.


 

 

Many thanks to Catherine Lowther of Goddard College for this contribution and guest post:

Nate and Jessie Rogers grow grains and keep a small herd of Jersey cows at their farm on the Dog River in Berlin, Vermont. They grow, harvest, and mill their own grain, and they sell their whole wheat flour, rolled oats, and milk on Saturdays at the Montpelier Farmers’ Market and at their farm stand.

Working with the river…

The main climate change issue the Rogers have experienced is river flooding caused by heavy rains. They bought their farm four years ago after the property was flooded during Tropical Storm Irene. The farm has one mile of river frontage and the fields were completely flooded, the house was damaged, and the previous owners had to go out of business.  A foot of sand had to be removed to restore the fields and a two-acre chunk of land washed away.  When Nate and Jessie first moved to the farm, they wondered if they should fill the horseshoe-shaped area back in, but decided against it after consulting with scientists from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR).RogersFarm

This loss of land also eventually led to work with The Vermont Land Trust, who offered to purchase a river corridor easement from them, in effect paying them to take some of their cropland out of use. With the erosive nature of their soil and the susceptibility of their fields to flood damage, they decided to accept the easement. The easement is fifty feet wide and centered on the middle of the river channel. They can’t farm the land that is within the easement, but they can plant trees in this corridor to stabilize the riverbanks.

Outside of the easement, the Rogers have planted all their river fields in grasses and perennial crops to keep the soil covered and keep it from washing away. This means they have 20 acres of river fields that they can’t use as part of their rotation for grains, but is still in some sort of agricultural production and also addresses their bigger concern of soil loss and downstream water quality.  They see the importance of water quality, and work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the ANR to make sure they have a healthy river that can function properly, while they still farm the land.

 

Catherine Lowther, PhD

Catherine is faculty in the Sustainability Program, and Chair of the Sustainability Committee at Goddard College in Plainfield, VT.  We will be collaborating with her and her students on several blog posts during this project.  Many thanks for their contributions!   

Best Management Practices go hand in hand with Climate Change Adaptation

Our interview continues with Rachel Schattman of the Agroecology and Rural Livelihoods Group about the Vermont Agricultural Resilience to Climate Change Initiative

Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA): Were there any Best Management Practices (BMPs) which were adopted for resilience reasons that didn’t fit into the strategic categories you identified: diversification, water management in the context of soil health, and innovative production?

Rachel: The way we selected the BMPs to highlight was that we looked at what the farmers were practicing and the degree to which these farmers felt that the BMPs protected them from the effects of climate change.  We definitely could have added more BMPs; rotational grazing is a great example of a strategic practice that can improve soil health and therefore water management on the farm.  Manure injection and riparian buffers qualify as BMPs that have great potential to protect farms from some effects of climate change.

We chose the practices  as examples of what farmers in Vermont are doing now, not an inventory.  There were a couple of BMPs that stood out as not fitting into one category, but which spanned many: monitoring of farm ecosystems (aka “agroecosystems”), was highlighted as a key approach for increasing resilience. In brief, if we don’t really know what’s going on in farm systems, it’s hard to make the best decisions about how to adjust farming practices. Having monitoring systems that deliver consistently reliable and useful information is critical for improving sustainability.

How to build better relationships between university-based researchers, farmers, municipalities and other public institutions so that the flow of data is used effectively is equally as important as deciding what we need to monitor.

CSA: On occasion, we have heard from farmers that they are optimistic about the effects of climate change, such as a longer growing season. Did you speak to any farmers who felt this way?

Rachel: Sometimes farmers would make off-hand comments to the effect of “a longer growing season isn’t something to complain about!” or “Wouldn’t it be great to grow avocados in Vermont?”

Avocados in Vermont?

Avocados in Vermont?

When not speaking in jest, however, several farmers confirm what researchers also know: more frost free days in a growing season is only one piece of the puzzle. Daylight hours, which have a large impact on many kinds of crops, will not change as the climate warms. In addition, increased warm and wet weather could have a negative effect on crops if it is accompanied by an increase in plant pathogens or increased numbers of pest generations.

One farmer who grows crops in a river valley in central Vermont noted that even in late summer seasons where frosts did not kill his crops, he faced an increase in pests and plant disease that undermined any benefit he garnered from the warm weather.

CSA: Did you notice any BMPs that were of particular value specifically for organic farmers? For conventional growers?

Rachel: We interviewed farmers of both organic and conventional operations, but we didn’t notice BMPs that were specific to either group. Often, organic producers distinguish themselves by noting that soil health and the long term sustainability of their operation guides their decision making and therefore their choice of management practices. The group of organic farmers we interviewed for this project echoed this – but so did the conventional growers!

One dairy farmer comes to mind who manages a farm spread between several towns in northern Vermont. He is a fifth generation dairy farmer and is very good at thinking about the long term sustainability of his family’s operation. He is particularly attentive to managing the flow of nutrients and water on his farm and uses practices that minimize manure run off and seepage from stored feed.


Management practices were based on planning timeframe rather than type of operation – conventional or organic.


The BMPs we identified were not aligned with either organic or conventional farming approaches. Rather, we found the more stark distinction between groups of farmers to be based on the timeframe in which they were planning their management strategies. Farmers who think strategically about the distant future of their farm may be more attracted to some BMPs, while farmers who only plan one to five years ahead may be more attracted to others.

Each BMP varies in terms of the timeframe in which it is effective. For example, if a farmer diversifies their markets today, they have almost immediately realized the benefit of that strategy. If that same farmer plants a riparian buffer along a stream bank, they may see 15 years pass before that buffer is established.

Photo credit: Lars Gange & Mansfield Heliflight

Fields damaged by flooding in Waitsfield. Photo credit: Lars Gange & Mansfield Heliflight

CSA: Effective communication between service providers and farmers requires a lot of work and trust-building; this can be especially true around the topic of climate change. Are there key characteristics of the service providers you interviewed, and the way they communicated that enable them to develop strong relationships with farmers?

Rachel: While we didn’t ask farmers specifically about qualities of effective service providers, we did ask them where they received their most useful and trusted information. We can also make our own list of qualities of service providers based on our anecdotal observations of those we interviewed and our experience with this group.

Farmers reported a few organizations to whom they looked regularly for production advice including:

However, before they mentioned an organization or technical service provider, all of the farmers said that they relied heavily on their peers.


All of the farmers said that they relied heavily on their peers.


This tells us that practitioners want to learn from practitioners, and that a good service provider is one that can facilitate learning opportunities between peers. We believe that a deeper level of climate change science needs to be shared with farmers, and that providing opportunities for key individuals to keep abreast of new research will benefit wide networks of farmers.

Second, we observed that the technical service providers that could most effectively work with farmers on limiting climate change risk understand climate change on a global level. They take initiative to educate themselves beyond what they hear on the news and can distinguish good quality information from theatrical politics.


Rarely do these service providers approach farmers with climate change adaptation as a primary goal.


Rather, addressing risk in all its forms is their mission and approach, and sharing the excitement about innovative adaptation approaches is part of what makes them invaluable to farmers.

CSA: Thank you for talking with us. Any additional thoughts you’d like to pass along?

Rachel: There is a big elephant in the room, and that is that this project is primarily focused on climate change adaptation, but does not address climate change mitigation. There are some that say that climate change is still too politicized a topic, primarily because of debate over if human activity causes climate change or not.  In our study, we found that most people believe that climate change is real, and many believe that human activity is a significant driver. This last point is the most contentious in the United States, as anyone who listens to the news or follows politics knows.


We found no one in our small sample of farmers and technical service providers who denies anthropogenic influences on climate change.


Furthermore, we contend that in order to be resilient in the long run, we all have to acknowledge humanity’s role in the changes to come. Even as we take ownership of this fact, the science is clear that climate change is happening and we will have to adapt. That is the justification for the focus of our work. The full report can be found here.

Schattman, R.E., H.M. Aitken, V.E. Méndez & M. Caswell (2014) Climate change resilience on Vermont farms: a research report for service providers. ARLG Research Brief # 2. Agroecology and Rural Livelihoods Group (ARLG), University of Vermont: Burlington, VT.

Rachel Schattman with the Agroecology and Rural Livelihoods Group talks about the Vermont Agricultural Resilience in a Changing Climate Initiative, Rachel Schattman, a former UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture  and current doctoral candidate, conducted extensive interviews of Vermont farmers and agricultural service providers.  Her goal was to delve into the approaches Vermont farmers are taking to increase resiliency and limit the risks they face due to changing climate.  Rachel’s project also investigates the role of the service provider in improving agricultural resilience and the key adaptation strategies for Northeastern farmers.

The full publication can be found here.

Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA):  We find your publication very helpful in terms of identifying and categorizing the dominant adaptation approaches of farmers in the state and region.  Through your interviews, did you get the sense that farmers and service providers were on the same page regarding climate change?  Was it as much of a priority for farmers as it was for service providers?

Rachel:   For this part of the project, we interviewed 15 farmers and 12 service providers. Both groups were clear that climate change is real and that it is a big deal for everyone in agriculture, though not everyone has the same degree of knowledge about climate change or how it will affect agriculture in the northeastern United States. 


People get their information about climate change from different sources, and there are differences in whether people are thinking five years into the future or 50 years into the future.  


 

DSCN0046It’s less a case of farmers thinking one thing and technical service providers thinking another, than a situation where farmers are not all of one mind and nor are technical service providers.

Specifically, we asked farmers how much climate change played into their farm management decisions, and we asked technical service providers if and how they talked about climate change with farmers. The farmers did not all prioritize climate change to the same degree: those that suffered losses with Tropical Storm Irene, or who were located in areas where erosion and flooding are reoccurring challenges, tend to be more concerned. These farmers know that climate change in the Northeast will likely mean more frequent and intense rainstorms, more floods, etc.  We found that these farmers had knowledge of climate change that was more accurate and nuanced than other farmers.  Likewise, some technical service providers were highly knowledgeable about climate change and others were less so, though most had questions about how to best support the farming community through the changes that are to come.

CSA:  Diversification, in a variety of ways, is a time-tested risk mitigation strategy and was a dominant adaptation strategy of the farmers you interviewed.  Was it your impression that farmers diversified initially to mitigate risk from other sources, and then continued after seeing the benefits for climate change resilience?  Or was it the impacts of climate change that prompted the diversification?

Rachel:  Yes, diversification is a widely used strategy for mitigating many different types of risk including economic, ecological and production risks.


These risks are not unique to climate change, but are intensified by the pressures that climate change puts on farms. 


Increased intensification of risk can look like a field that has flooded every 25 years in the past starting to flood more frequently under new climatic conditions. It can also look like spikes in fungal diseases on plants because of more humidity and warmer atmospheric temperatures.


All of the potential ecological changes affect farmers’ financial stability and success.


A farmer’s initial reason for diversifying may have been market related (e.g. wanting to have several different types of sales avenues), crop or product related (e.g. drought or moisture resistant crops, animal and crop systems), or a livelihood decision (e.g. off-farm jobs or other sources of income).  The type of diversification a farmer chooses depends on the specific threats their business faces and the particular resources they have to draw upon.

The farmers that we interviewed reported diversification strategies that were originally adopted for reasons other than climate change.  They also acknowledged that these same strategies put them in a good position as climate change intensifies preexisting threats such as increased frequency and intensity of storms and flooding.

As farmers learn more about climate change, they also tweak their diversification strategies. For example, we interviewed one business owner who chose to site several new greenhouses on a piece of land that is less vulnerable to high winds, which she believes will be a more important factor in the future. This same farmer chose stronger construction materials for the greenhouses because she believes structural integrity of these structures would become more of an issue as intense storms become more frequent.   


Diversification strategies originally adopted for reasons other than climate change put farmers in a good position as climate change intensifies.


 

Destroyed crops due to flooding, Waitsfield, VT

Destroyed crops on farmland, Waitsfield, VT. Photo credit: Lars Gange & Mansfield Heliflight Three risk management strategies and management practices farmers could use for improving climate change resiliency (adapted from Schattman et al., 2014)

Diversification Strategies

Water Management Strategies

Innovative Production Strategies

Markets Irrigation Plastic mulch
Products Organic matter management Hoop houses
Household income Erosion control Robotic milking
Land-base New crops

 

 

Schattman, R.E., H.M. Aitken, V.E. Méndez & M. Caswell (2014) Climate change resilience on Vermont farms: a research report for service providers. ARLG Research Brief # 2. Agroecology and Rural Livelihoods Group (ARLG), University of Vermont: Burlington, VT.

 

As southern areas of the region still need rain, northern areas have received more than enough over the past few weeks.  Given these recent heavy storms, we thought we would focus on measures farmers are using to adapt to such events, which are predicted to become more and more common with climate change.  We welcome Catherine Lowther, faculty at Goddard College, for another guest blog profiling a local farmer working hard to adapt.

Alan LePage is a fifth generation Vermont farmer and has been growing vegetables organically for 40 years at the LePage Farm in Barre, VT. He sells his produce at the Montpelier Farmer’s Market and shares his knowledge in his radio show “The Curse of the Golden Turnip” on the Goddard College radio station, WGDR, at 91.1 FM or at http://www.wgdr.org Sunday mornings from 6:00-9:00.

 

http://capitalcityfarmersmarket.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Mkt-10-18-18-600×400.jpg

The biggest climate change problem Alan has experienced is “gully washer storms,” localized storms when 4 – 6 inches of rain falls in a short period of time. His soil is clay loam and is slow to drain. When that much rain falls in early summer on fresh tilled ground, a farmer can lose everything. There can be serious damage with sandy soil too, but it drains more rapidly. With clay loam there will be standing water, he can’t get onto his fields with equipment for some time, and he has lost crops as a result. To manage these events, he has switched to using extensive raised beds. To create the raised beds, he uses a bog harrow that has two large harrow disks that toss dirt up to the side to form the beds. If the soil is loose, the harrowing alone works fine, but if it is clumpy, it will need to be raked after harrowing.

If water runs off into the valleys on the sides of the beds and the ground is bare, this will create ravines, so he leaves the areas between the beds protected by weeds to hold the soil. To prevent the weeds from going to seed, he trims them with a weed wacker.

He is also making extensive use of plastic to cover beds to protect them against rain. In years with successions of intense rainstorms, he has covered entire seedings with 10×500’ tarps. This is especially helpful when seeding in June for a fall harvest. He has tried using hay mulch, but a big storm will push hay into the mud.

Most of his fields are on a slight incline, and using raised beds has obviated the damage that occurs in intense storms. He has had to be more careful about the placement of beds so that there is less chance of getting a river running through a field. In general, he finds it is very important when planning a sloped field to terrace it to minimize the downward direction of water flow. It also helps to break a field into sections with strips of cover crops that will absorb and break the flow of water.

He has also had to do a lot more plant staking, especially of fava beans. On Memorial Day weekend in 2013, he had 6 inches of rain, and if he hadn’t had his fava beans staked and roped, rain would have knocked them down, they would have gotten caught in the mud, and he would have lost the whole crop. Corn can stand up again after a rain, but fava beans are a Mediterranean plant and aren’t used to intense water events.

Insects

Alan is seeing more squash borers and squash bugs. Squash bugs inject a toxin that deforms plants. There can be enormous populations of them in late summer, and their little white progeny sometimes cover the ground. They damage cucumbers and zucchini. He never used to see them, and now they are a perennial problem.

He has also had tarnish plant bugs. These suck plant juices, attack the primary meristem of a plant, and destroy it. They also sting strawberry blossoms so that the fruit is deformed. They are especially active at temperatures in the 90s. Tarnish plant bugs are very difficult to treat. He uses an organic product called Entrust that costs $600/lb., or people can use the same thing in Monterey Garden Insect Spray that is ready to spray on. Growers can use it only three times per season per crop because insects will build up resistance to it, but it does work.

Higher Temperatures

Alan has not had too much trouble with heat as his soils are high in clay and slow to warm. He has noticed that in a very hot summer, it is hard to get lettuce to germinate. It won’t germinate in soils over 75 degrees, goes into dormancy, and comes up next year. He has tried starting seeds in flats under lilac trees and keeping them watered to keep them cool. Spinach also doesn’t like high temperatures, especially if it is late summer seeded and soil temperatures are too high.

Drought

Alan has had only one year of drought. Many farmers are near rivers and irrigate their fields from the rivers, but he has a hill farm. In 2001, he had to truck in water to keep his plants alive. Others growing on well-drained land lost a lot. The spring for his house also went dry.

Benefits of Warming

On the positive side, increasing temperatures over the last 30 years have made it possible to plant some crops he could never grow before. September is especially warmer. Sweet potatoes are now viable, especially if there is good soil, and he has had some spectacular sweet potato crops. He is also planting “yard long” beans, an Asian species that requires a long season.

 

Catherine Lowther, PhD

Catherine is faculty in the Sustainability program, and Chair of the Sustainability Committee at Goddard College in Plainfield, VT.  We will be collaborating with her and her students on several blog posts during this project.  Many thanks for their contributions!   

 

Trevor Hardy of Brookdale Fruit Farm discusses drip irrigation systems at UVM Extension workshop

Trevor Hardy, irrigation supplier and farmer, discusses drip irrigation systems at UVM Extension workshop

To continue investigating a climate change survey of farmers at the Intervale, Maggie Donin from the Intervale Center highlights the production changes which farmers have reported they’ve made in response to extreme weather and climate change. These include planting and tillage practices as well as some infrastructure improvements and site location decisions.

Production adaptations reported by farmers:

  • Soils and Tillage practices
    • Increase soil organic matter
    • Change tillage practices to quicken recovery
    • Use raised beds in field production
    • Put higher field margins into production
    • Ensure shared equipment is washed off after use to reduce spread of pests and disease in soils
  • Planting changes
    • Plant highest fields first to reduce risk from spring flooding
    • Plant fast growing crops in riskiest fields to ensure quick turnaround if lost to flooding
    • Plant items with lowest inputs in risky fields (ex: lettuce, sweet corn, grains, winter squash). Inputs include seeds, labor,  fertilizer
    • Plant a diversity of crops
    • Plant more perennials over annuals
    • Plant higher fields more densely
    • Plant buffer rows of willows which can survive flooding and minimize the speed of flood waters
    • Extend the growing season on both ends
  • Infrastructure Improvements
    • Build greenhouses or high tunnels for controlled environments
    • Purchase an irrigation system
    • Build a well to mitigate drought risk

So far, the most successful strategies have been growing on less flood prone land, building high tunnels and greenhouses, and having a diversity of markets and production so that one event doesn’t affect everything on your farm.

Overall, this survey demonstrated that farmers clearly understand that there are many risks facing their farms each season, not just extreme weather. The Intervale farmers have decided that the benefits outweigh the risks.  Regardless of their location, weather related challenges will always pose risks for farming.    These farmers have found that many of the strategies to mitigate risks and increase resiliency to extreme weather align with their practices for sustainable and organic agriculture.  These practices and techniques include managing healthy soils, diversifying crops for different markets, and building human and social capital, all of which are the basis for sustainable farm businesses.  While extreme and erratic weather and inexorable climate change will never be in farmers’ complete control, the Intervale farmers in Burlington, Vermont are relying on core concepts of sustainable agriculture to deal with an uncertain future.

As a last resort, some farms also consider and potentially make the decision to find new land and move their production to higher ground.  Delving into when and how some farmers decide to make this big move will be covered in a future blog piece.

 

 

In Burlington, VT, the Intervale is not only notable for providing a substantial amount of locally grown food within close proximity of an urban center, but also because of its location next to the Winooski River and its susceptibility to flooding.  Given the recent increase in extreme events in the Northeast, it is no surprise that many of the farms located in the Intervale have faced a number of such flooding events over the past several years.  These floods have at times proven devastating, and have caused many of the farmers to critically evaluate, and re-evaluate, their climate change resilience strategy.  As part of a climate change resiliency and adaptive land use project by the Intervale Center, Maggie Donin surveyed all the current Intervale farms during the summer of 2014.  She aimed to identify key climate change adaptation strategies employed by the farmers and to learn how farmers were planning for their future, DSC09325their businesses, and their livelihoods.  The survey results confirm some of our previous observations of adaptation approaches by farmers in the region, but also shed light on some newer strategies.  Below is a summary of the key findings:

The survey results indicated that some farmers are hesitant to attribute erratic weather to climate change and see weather as an inherent risk to agriculture more generally.  And though the Intervale is sometimes viewed as a more difficult place to farm with more weather risks (i.e., flooding), there also seems to be an understanding that farming is difficult everywhere.  The surveyed farmers have developed some specific strategies to address the flooding risk and other climate threats on their land and are generally using strategies that align with their central values as sustainable agricultural practitioners – community relationship building, soil preservation, diversification of crops among others.

These are the key business adaptations identified by farmers:

  • Purchase flood insurance
  • Maintain honest relationships with customers so that they understand the risks the farm faces
  • Add a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) to their farm or increase size of existing CSA
  • Reduce excess product going to current CSA customers (from 50-60% excess to 30%) and sell that difference to wholesale markets. Build financial cushion with profits.
  • Process excess crops to use in CSA for different seasons
  • Extend CSA season to year round to spread out cash flow
  • Build other skills outside of farming for income in an emergency scenario
  • Use existing knowledge and skill set for paid speaking engagements and other educational opportunities

So far, the most successful strategies have been growing on less flood prone land, building high tunnels and greenhouses, and having a diversity of markets and production so that one event doesn’t affect everything on your farm.

In terms of recommending strategies to others, one farm said that the strategies they were using felt effective, but others need to find approaches that work for them. Other farmers stated the importance of building a portfolio of strategies and of having a financial buffer when you begin farming so that you can deal with potential disaster and loss of revenue.

Overall, this survey demonstrated that farmers clearly understand that there are many risks facing their farms each season, not just extreme weather. The Intervale farmers have decided that the benefits outweigh the risks.  Regardless of their location, weather related challenges will always pose risks for farming.    These farmers have found that many of the strategies to mitigate risks and increase resiliency to extreme weather align with their practices for sustainable and organic agriculture.  These practices and techniques include managing healthy soils, diversifying crops for different markets, and building human and social capital, all of which are the basis for sustainable farm businesses.  While extreme and erratic weather and inexorable climate change will never be in farmers’ complete control, the Intervale farmers in Burlington, Vermont are relying on core concepts of sustainable agriculture to deal with an uncertain future.

In the next blog, we’ll highlight the key production adaptions reported by Intervale farmers.  Many thanks to Maggie Donin for her guest contribution to our blog!

Joey Klein has been farming organically at Littlewood Farm in the Winooski River Valley in Plainfield, VT for 20 years. He sells organic vegetables wholesale throughout the growing season, and 75% of his wholesale produce goes to Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier. In the spring, he also sells plant starts and pick-your-own strawberries.

 

Joey Klein, Source: montpelierbridge.com

Managing Water

Joey recommends paying attention to how land drains. He is fortunate to have both well-drained sandy loam and slow draining clay loam fields because he has to work with both wet and dry conditions. He is near the river so he has access to water, and this makes him a bit more climate change proof than farmers who don’t have a nearby source of water. He pumps a lot of water out of the river. He says that access to a good water source is a crucial consideration when shopping for a farm.

He has enough land that he doesn’t need to plant the whole area every year, and he crops less than half his land each year. In wet years, he has not been able to use the heavier land. In a dry summer, he can access the clay loam fields by mid-June and grow into the fall, but if it gets wet again in the fall, the plants will stick to the ground.

The sandy loam soils need to be managed carefully and not tilled too much. He rotates his crops, uses green manures – field peas, oats, winter rye, and vetch – and keeps a field in cover crops one year in every three. This reduces run off, keeps the soil organic matter high, and he needs only a small amount of chicken manure to supplement the green manures.

Climate Change

Joey has been thinking that the climate could tip, and a major change may not be far away. He says we will need to have local farms in production because people will want farmers for neighbors so they can live where their food is grown. He wants to prepare for this by using less fossil fuel and finding ways to have people work the land with horses.

Insects

Joey hasn’t noticed insects being any worse yet. He has some flea beetles, cucumber beetles, potato bugs, and in some years tarnish plant bugs, but they aren’t a big problem. He is dreading the possible arrival of the Swede midge that attacks the growing point of all brassicas and is currently in the Champlain Valley.

Benefits of Warming

Joey is glad to have warmer falls with a couple of extra growing weeks, and the springs aren’t as erratic as they used to be.

 

Catherine Lowther, PhD

Catherine is faculty in the Sustainability program, and Chair of the Sustainability Committee at Goddard College in Plainfield, VT.  We will be collaborating with her and her students on several blog posts during this project.  Many thanks for their contributions!   

Suzy Hodgson at UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) interviews Amanda Andrews of Tamarack Hollow Farm about her experience with farming on a floodplain in Vermont and her recent move to higher ground.

Can you describe your move to Vermont and farming on the floodplain in Burlington?

Amanda: I moved up here in 2010 after working on farms in New York State. My partner and I started leasing land on a former dairy farm, which had been abandoned in 1978. It had changed hands a number of times and the City of Burlington wouldn’t allow residential development; it was zoned agriculture, with the Winooski winding between it and the adjacent Ethan Allen Homestead and the Intervale Center.

We knew the Intervale Center socially and knew about the Winooski prime soils there. We knew it was floodplain and what was happening at the Intervale, where it floods yearly in the spring with the snowmelt. Our farming friends said that we’ve only had one flood that was ever a problem in the 20 years we’ve been here. It’s a “non issue.” Flooding wasn’t holding anyone back.

tamarack1

Tamarack Hollow Farm. Photo credit: Amanda Andrews

CSA:  What was your experience farming on the floodplain?

Amanda: When we started our farm, there was no problem. We had a normal planting season on 2.5 acres and as part of our lease agreement, we rejuvenated and cleared 35 acres for new pasture for our livestock in 2010. But in 2011, there was the heaviest snowfall in 30 years and that spring was the heaviest rainfall.  That year Lake Champlain flooded where the Winooski meets the Lake and it backed onto our farm. The lake level reached a record high of 104 feet. This was our 2nd spring so we thought it must be a freak occurrence. We were under lake level and the water didn’t clear off until the end of June when we could plant.

CSA: When and how did you make the decision to move to higher ground?

Amanda: At the end of August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene hit and our farm was flooded again. 2011 was a total loss.


Having two major once-in-a-lifetime events in one year, we decided seriously to think of moving even though we had just arrived.


Summer 2012 was really great but still in the back of our minds, we continued looking, talking with the but most of the available land was large dairy farms without much vegetable soils, and we didn’t want a mortgage, a big old barn, and be tied to livestock. The economic collapse of 2008/09 meant people weren’t spending $12/lb. on meat.

Summer 2012 was really great but still in the back of our minds, we continued looking, talking with the Vermont Land Trust but most of the available land was large dairy farms without much vegetable soils, and we didn’t want a mortgage, a big old barn, and be tied to livestock. The economic collapse of 2008/09 meant people weren’t spending $12/lb. on meat.

In 2013, our farm flooded in May, June, and July. Spring snowmelt wasn’t a problem; it was heavy rains. We had standing water on our farm and an adjacent wetland took over 10 acres of our vegetable fields. On July 4, a microburst storm came over the lake from the Adirondacks and hit Burlington;  sewers were overflowing in Burlington. The next day the river flooded and our farm was flooded.

Tamarack - flooded

Standing water on spring greens, Tamarack Hollow Farm, Burlington, May 26, 2013. Photo credit: Amanda Andrews

CSA: What were your losses?

Amanda: We had done all our direct seeding in April. We’d planted peas, carrots, beets, potatoes, tomatoes, winter squash, spring greens, we lost all spring and summer vegetable. We had to move all our livestock, equipment, everything off the farm.

We put all our  workers in furlough and lost upwards of $75,000 worth of produce. We waited for the farm to dry out, and at the end of July, we planted everything. What did work to our advantage is that since we lost so much in May and June, we seeded extra fall crops as we had extra space. Having lost the spring crops, we had space for fall crops, broccoli, kale and kohlrabi. We seeded heavily and had an OK fall – it didn’t put us out of business. If we had flooded again that fall, it would have been the end.

CSA:  Have the weather-related effects of climate change been what you expected? Have they been manageable?

Amanda: What we experienced in Burlington, it wasn’t necessarily the snowmelt, the historic reasons for flooding, it was heavy rainfalls, short duration, and very very heavy. With four inches-in-a-day rain storm, even if you’re not on a floodplain, that sort of rain can still screw you over. I’d make crop plans over the winter with contingencies on top of contingencies. If there is flooding in May, this is what we do; if there is flooding in June, this is what we do. If in August… I had to have contingencies for all of these as we were going to flood at some point during the growing season.

People said it’s a flood plain, what did you expect? Floodplains flood predictably, but what happened in the past five years is totally unpredictable flooding and that’s the difference. It’s not that you’re going to flood between April 1 and May 1, which is what it had been for hundreds of years.

Now, you might flood in June, July, and/or August; we have experienced flooding in every summer month. That is not in the historical record. The Winooski flood plain is farmed in every town the Winooski goes through. Because we were closest to the Lake, we got it the worst. We got everyone’s floodwater but we’re not the only ones going through this.


It’s definitely a risk, if you’re further upstream, flooding may be manageable. Downstream, we were flooding that much more often. It’s a tradeoff for that prime soil.


CSA:  What particular site characteristics were you looking for beyond higher ground?

Amanda: A lot of the farmland that exists in Vermont is on the Winooski and for obvious reasons we shied away from this. What we wanted was really, really well-drained soils. We weren’t interested in dairy farms as they had poorly drained and shallow soils. And anything with clay was out. I cross-referenced potential agricultural parcels with the State’s soil maps for soil types, topography, forests, wetlands, and water bodies. We found an agricultural parcel with Vershire-Dummerston complex – a sandy loam – which is very well drained., not A+ but 84 on the scale 1 to 100 with no asterisk for flooding risk like our Winooski farm.

Plowing the new farm, Tamarack Hollow Farm, Plainsfield, May 9, 2014

Plowing the new farm, Tamarack Hollow Farm, Plainfield, May 9, 2014. Photo credit: Amanda Andrews.

CSA: Are you planning to change your crops?

Amanda: There will be slight change in our crops. Down at the Intervale, our planting was bottom heavy. Our experience of climate change is that the spring season is shrinking; it’s later to start, with very heavy storms, and heats up rapidly. Now we have high dry land, so we can get to our fields in spring but spring is not as long.

My experience is that spring is starting later and ending earlier. We’ll have high tunnels for spring production and perennials that come up on their own so I don’t need to be in the fields to cultivate. We’re trying to do things that aren’t dependent on tractors in the spring when soils are wet.

A big risk is increased diseases. We’re getting diseases and pests that used to just affect southern growers. We don’t grow berries yet and are looking carefully where we put them. We are looking for disease resistance in our seed varieties and there’re lots of successful breeding programs and surveys to see what farmers need in varieties.

It is troublesome. I wish we could grow all heirloom varieties, but as diseases are shifting, the resistance packages bred into the heirlooms no longer cut it. And we have new weed species moving up from the south. We need to know how much viable weed seed is in the soil and to keep that down as a long-term management goal.

CSA: Moving forward, how are you planning for climate and weather changes? Any specific example for plants?

Amanda: We’re buying rhubarb and asparagus and getting perennials established. We’re growing more herbs as you can get them in the ground earlier in the spring. The first project we did after water and power was put in a huge walk-in cooler. For us, business plan-wise, lots of fall crops are easier to grow, fall is extending.


While we’re losing spring, we’re getting longer falls.  So we are trying to be very fall heavy to make more income in the winter so we can be buffeted from the shorter spring. It’s a shifting calendar.


We’re not considering strawberries, it’s becoming more and more difficult due to a lot of spring rain making it difficult for strawberries to fruit. Ten years ago, we probably would have put in an acre of strawberries as that was the thing to bring people to your farmstand. Instead we have ton of storage crops that we can sell in the December and January and markets have been responsive. Now you can grow rutabagas and carrots and sell them.

CSA: What advice would you give to other farmers from what you learned about climate change?

Amanda: Farming was hard enough before climate change, it’s not like it was easy before and now it’s really hard. If you really want to be a farmer, there’s nothing that can be said to keep you from trying farming. What did the farmer do when he won the lottery? He kept farming until it was all gone. You’re going to keep doing it until you’re broke.


I can’t imagine surviving climate change in a bubble. Our greatest resource for planning and surviving is communicating with seed companies, growers, Extension services, knowing what’s happening in southern VT, MA. What’s a problem for them this year will be a problem for us next year. I have peers in Pennsylvania and talk to them all the time.

If you look at Vermont projections for climate change in 50 years, it’ll be Pennsylvania. 


 

Many of the best soils for agriculture are alluvial deposits found on flood plains along rivers.  In Vermont, one of these rivers is the Winooski River which flows through Burlington into Lake Champlain.  Over recent years, as part of the upswing in the local food movement, many small farms have been attracted to the innovative farm incubator and food hub called the Intervale Center in Burlington.  However, while its location in Burlington is prime for proximity to local food fans, its river-bank location on the WInooski leaves a number of the farms at risk to flooding.

Winooski River outside Richmond, VT

Sediment covering fields from receded floodwaters of the Winooski River outside Richmond, VT Photo credit: Lars Gange & Mansfield Heliflight

Since 1970, the frequency of severe flood events has increased in Vermont with the amount of rainfall falling during very heavy precipitation events up by 67%.  Hurricane Irene damaged over  9000 acres of Vermont’s farmland, causing economic losses of about $20 billion with many farms losing all of their crops.  See photos taken from helicopter of flood damage along river corridors in Vermont.

At the Intervale, a number of farms were willing to “stick it out” after one big flood event, but by the time, another extreme event hit the farm and destroyed crops, it was time to reconsider the farm’s location.  We have identified several farms and farmers who have recently made the decisionto move to higher ground in Vermont.

Our first interview is with Amanda Andrews, co-owner of Tamarack Hollow Farm, who moved her farm from a location near the Intervale in Burlington to a new site in Plainfield, Vermont.

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: Lars Gange & Mansfield Heliflight

Route 2, Bolton, VT Photo credit: Lars Gange & Mansfield Heliflight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skip to toolbar