Category: flooding


Butterworks Farm is one of Vermont’s oldest certified organic dairy farms, and has a strong reputation for growing some of the finest organic grains in the state. The farm building complex and surrounding fields are situated on gently sloping fields near the border of Canada. A herd of Jersey cows produces milk which is processed on site into yogurt, kefir and rich Jersey cream for direct and wholesale markets.

Jersey cows, Butterworks Farm, photo credit: Suzy Hodgson, UVM Extension

Butterworks Farm leases and owns additional parcels in the surrounding area, including some floodplain fields. The farm has grown a diversity of whole and milled grains for regional markets, and animal feed and is currently transitioning to a 100% grassfed operation with a bedded pack system. Alissa White visited Butterworks in early April 2017 to talk to Jack Lazor about how he manages his production with the impacts of climate change in mind.

Climate Vulnerabilities

Regional climate change projections predict agriculture in the northeastern US will experience a variety of direct weather impacts, and indirect impacts as a result of climate change. For Butterworks Farm in northern Vermont, the site-specific vulnerabilities of climate change encompass potentially both direct and indirect climate change impacts.

Butterworks Farm. Photo credit: S. Hodgson, UVM Extension

Direct Climate Change Impacts

  • Warmer temperatures overall,
  • Longer warmer growing seasons,
  • Precipitation increases,
  • Extreme precipitation events,
  • Increased flood damage and erosion,
  • Severe wind and storm hazards,
  • Elevated atmospheric CO2,
  • Increased potential for drought.

Indirect climate change impacts lead to increases in:

  • Weed competition and invasive species,
  • Populations of damaging insects,
  • Incidence of plant pathogens,
  • Livestock heat stress, and
  • Pressure from pathogens and parasites of livestock.

Adapted from Janowiak et al 2016 and Tobin et al 2015

Management goals

Jack and his family balance many goals and challenges when making decisions about managing their farm. Climate concerns fall into both short and long-term decision making at Butterworks, but at the forefront of farm decision making for their family at this time are long-term financial solvency and near-term intergenerational transfer of ownership. Climate change considerations are important, but auxillary to day-to-day management and long-term planning.

How do we manage climate change and weather-related risks at the field scale?

Jack implements a number of practices on the field, specifically, managing for flooding and controlling soil erosion.  He has transitioned land which is particularly prone to flooding from grain production into permanent forage. “We’ve been farming this floodplain property for 20 years…Increased incidence of high water… could come any month of the year now… Then we only loose one cut out of three if there’s high water.” In previous years, the farm has used underseeding cover crops to limit erosion from high intensity rain events.

“We’ve been farming this floodplain property for 20 years… high water… could come any month of the year now…”

Jack Lazar, Butterworks Farm. Photo credit: Suzy Hodgson, UVM Extension

Jack attributes many benefits to crop rotations, including some that are directly associated with climate risks. His goal is to do less with tillage in all fields because he sees evidence of better soil quality and healthier plants without tillage.  By minimizing tillage and keeping roots in the ground, he maintains soil health with organic matter of 8-9%.

At the field scale, Jack is focused on increasing soil health to buffer the impacts of drought, flooding and extreme precipitation. Cover crops are planted to help hold soil from erosive forces, and land which is particularly flood prone is being transitioned into perennial forages to protect soil.

Building soil biological health and organic matter levels has multiple benefits for the farm.  Jack sees the soil health reflected in the plant growth, and in turn the health of his farm’s Jersey cows.  Increased organic matter limits the damage of extreme precipitation and holds moisture in times of drought.  In response to 2016 summer drought, Jack relied upon increasing his land base for forages and maintaining good rotational grazing practices.  In contrast, grain production has been challenging financially as it’s prone to disease during wet summers and storm events. Overall, the farm’s trajectory is towards perennial forages and away from grain production.

Contributing Author: Alissa White, Research Specialist, Agroecology Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC)
Department of Plant and Soil Science, University of Vermont

Farming for over 30 years in Shoreham, Will and Judy Stevens have noticed climate changes at their organic farm – Golden Russet Farm.  From 1985 to 1995, Will recalls having a number of late frosts in May and that the first frost date typically occurred in early September. However, in the last 20 years, there’ve been only two years where the frost date has been as early as that, with the typical frost date extending to October.

Our growing season is longer and we have more frost-free days; we’ve had years where we’ve had no May frosts and more notably the fall has gotten longer.

In addition to the changes in frost dates, Golden Russet Farm has experienced both extreme storm events, as well as excessively wet growing seasons. 2011 was a persistently wet year, starting in spring and culminating with Tropical Storm Irene in August. Golden Russet Farm was in the red that year with a $34K loss. Much of the crop loss was due to soil saturation, not event flooding per se. The farm’s soils are a layer of loam on top of a layer of clay of varying thickness (2 to14 inches), which inhibits drainage from the root zone. Learning from 2011, Will says,

I’ll take a dry year over a wet year any day. It’s easier to manage dry conditions with irrigation than to be at the mercy of heavy rain events. We’ve noticed over the years that almost every rain event is a violent event. We used to get gentle rain. Now it’s thunderstorms and violent events. With 2.5 inches of rain in an hour, we needed to get rid of the surface water as we didn’t want standing water.

In 2012, working with their existing equipment (a three-bottom moldboard plow), the Stevens built up raised beds by alternating plow passes with 12 inch dead furrows. This roughly formed 36 inch wide ‘beds’. Going to this type of raised bed did add some complications. After soil smoothing and mulching, the Stevens ended up with a final bed width of 30 inches, but this width was too narrow for the transplanter and cultivators as they risked sliding off the beds.

After several years making adjustments, the Stevens invested in a three-point hitch bed shaper in 2015, which can be pulled with their tractor to shape 34-inch beds, moving soil up from the wheel track, so that only two passes need to be made with the press pans. The 34 inch top width of the beds matches up with the cultivator and transplanter. At the same time, drip irrigation tubing is put into place as the beds are made.

Will Stevens with his bed former purchased in 2015

The Stevens started by planting carrots, lettuce, beets, and spinach in some of the raised beds, and brassicas, broccoli and corn in others. In 2016, the Stevens had 12 raised beds of tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, peppers, flowers, and 11 raised beds of garlic across their 1.5 acre field.

With the bed shaper, there’s no need to till the topsoil. In fall 2016, the Stevens bought a chisel plow with four shanks for subsoiling as their soils have a plow pan, which needs to be broken up to make the soils more friable and further improve drainage. For 2017, their plan is to increase by a third the raised bed production area so that they’ll have two acres of raised beds in 2017, and then, they’ll expand to three acres by 2018. With raised beds, Golden Russet flower sales are up 50% from 2015 to 2016.

Raised beds keep me in farming and really reduce the risk of loss, especially mitigating the losses in a bad year. If we’d had raised beds that year (2011), we’d have had fewer crops with wet feet. We lost $4000 worth of carrots, and ended with none that we could sell.”

Soil temperature changes more quickly on raised beds with greater surface area exposed to air.

Raised Bed Equipment

2015 Purchases:

Raised bed shaper              $2,700

Chisel plough -4 shanks  $2,900

Drip tape layer                    $200

These equipment purchases of $5,800 represent only 17% of the cost of the Golden Russet losses in the year of Irene, 2011. Looked at another way, this $5,800 spent in 2015 was easily recouped the next year with the $7,000 annual increase in flower sales. While Golden Russet’s overall use and related costs of irrigation are up, it’s clear that the combination of irrigation to increase yields during dry periods and raised beds to prevent losses during wet periods will result in more stable revenues over the years.

A $5800 investment in equipment for raised beds was easily recouped in one year of increased revenues.

Golden Russet’s plan to move to raised beds arose from the worst case scenario of record wetness and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, but as Stevens says, “Even in a dry year like 2016, there’s not really a downside.”

Suzy Hodgson visited Will and Judy’s farm in February 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

Andy Jones manages the Intervale Community Farm, all of which lies within the 100-year floodplain of the Winooski River. Last week, I sat down with Andy in his office to hear his perspective on the farm and his strategy for adapting to the extreme weather of climate change.

We are subject to the whims of the river. When I started in 1993, the typical pattern was spring flooding, snowmelt flowing, all related to how much snow pack was in the hills. And when the weather warmed, rain hit the snow pack and came rushing down to lake and inundated some fields. The flood plain looks very flat but it is actually sloping and there are a lot of minor surface undulations, a foot here and foot there make a great deal of difference in terms of actual flooding.Andy Jones

Every speck of ground and building is located within the 100-year of floodplain including where we are right now (in the farm office). The main reason it’s remained in agriculture within the city limits of Burlington is because it’s within the 100-year floodplain. If that were not the case, it would have been housing or something else long ago.

Andy stands in a long tradition of farming at the Intervale. As he acknowledges, “long ago, the land was recognized as quality productive farmland; native peoples farmed here for hundreds of years. Ethan Allen was granted all of it in the 18th century; it’s been farmed entirely throughout the centuries. It’s productive farmland, albeit subject to flooding.”

Was Tropical Storm Irene a game changer?

Water management and flooding have always been our major challenges; the biggest risk factors are not insects, diseases, or market disruptions, but the omnipresent risk and the potential catastrophic outcome of the big flood.

In 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene dumped on us, we were heavily impacted; the entire farm, save 2 acres, was underwater. All of our high land that usually does not flood was flooded and we lost about 12 – 13 acres of crops, which were in the ground.


Unlike a lot of other people, we’d been preparing because we were accustomed to being in a floodplain and having to salvage crops and to move equipment out of harm’s way.


In hindsight we should have started earlier. We certainly didn’t have any idea about the scale and the magnitude; we were expecting a bad flood – we weren’t expecting an Epic flood.

After Irene, Andy explains, there were some things he really had to look at hard. “We expected to have a rough spring the following year and while we didn’t make our spring numbers, we were pretty close, 94-95% of our target. By the following year we were back on track in spades.”

Did the cooperative structure make a difference in customer and membership support?

I think the cooperative structure in the broad sense of the word ‘cooperative’, not necessarily in the legal sense of the word. For some people, the legal cooperative is important and the fact that they own it and have a stake in it is a motivating factor for their commitment. More people joined the co-op as members providing $200 to the farm through their co-op equity membership. For the larger percentage, it’s  more about their relationship, they know the farm, they know the people who are the growers, and they understand that we are all in this together.  We came up with an arrangement which works for everybody and that was really powerful.


It’s really more about their relationship, they know the farm, the growers, and they understand that we are all in this together…


A number of farmers who were direct market growers were dependent on farmers markets where everything just evaporated. But for us, we had this on-going business because we had people who we were talking to us, to whom we were sending our newsletter, and we were holding events.

From marketing standpoint, I was impressed with the commitment of CSA membership and the model did help us through the overall catastrophe. In order for it to be successful, you need to have a relationship with the CSA members and a good track record.

How does the floodplain make a difference in farm management?

Even though the trend has been toward crazy precipitation episodes, we don’t suffer as much because we have a lot of very sandy well-drained soil.


The irony is the floodplain is dangerous and forgiving at the same time.


We do have about 1/3 of our land that is fairly silty, considerably lower, and more flood prone, so with that land, since Irene, we’ve made some adjustments. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to count on the wetter land to be able to plant early crops and always have to wait and plant crops.

How are you predicting the odds of the weather and evening out production?

When we expect to plant varies year to year, not before the 2nd week of May, sometimes early June. Silty soils hold moisture better so have less moisture stress compared to sandy soils. We’ve been planting later for 20 years but we have lost significant crops in lower fields in the past 5 years, so we plant crops which we can more afford to lose, and which turn over quickly such as lettuce, spinach, and salad greens. With a quick maturation rate, if they’re lost, we can still replant. With the winter share, we’re dependent on growing a lot of root crops, which we need to store. We can’t lose these, as we’re reliant on them for the long sweep of the seasons.

How are you managing different soil types in flood prone areas?

For our silty soils, we bought a raised bed builder a few years ago. We’re not using this on sandy soils as the water drains away. While raised beds don’t help us in the flooding situation, they help in intense precipitation events (2-3 inches or when we have consecutive wet weeks) by preventing saturated soils and root death.

On the sandy side of the farm, we rely a lot on irrigation and we have for 20 years so we have invested in irrigation equipment. And we expect that every year we will irrigate.   Last year, August was dry and we were irrigating our vegetables twice a week.

For us, irrigation has been essential; otherwise, we would have lost so many crops as irrigation allows us not only to keep things growing and bulking up, but other crops we can’t even germinate without irrigation.


For us, irrigation is the difference between a crop and no crop.


One of the things we’re blessed with in the Northeast is plenty of water and in this location in particular we have great water resources.  We have a big river going by and the ground water is relatively shallow so when we had a well put in to feed our greenhouses, the well drillers we’re so excited that we could get 800 gallons a minute for nothing.

In managing flood prone soils, what benefits have you seen?

Coming back full circle, where we started is to really trying to concentrate resources on the more secure parts of the farm, so that’s the sandy fields. Although we have issues with low organic matter and water management, they are more secure and resilient to weather extremes. We push the yields in a concentrated area, make sure we’re really on top of our game with weed control, irrigation, really optimizing the growth of everything in those areas. When we’re spread out over wider area, we don’t really pay attention to any one thing.

Since Irene, have you suffered more losses due to too much water?

Nothing major. Last year, we lost in late May and early June; we lost ¼ acre – 1/3 acre of spinach and lettuce and 20% of our potato crop. In the whole scheme of things in terms of overall farm output, it was less than 5%.

How are you using cover for erratic weather?

Tunnels are major element of overall planned resiliency and an example of concentrating production. We’ve moved all our tomatoes and almost all our peppers inside which contributed to better yields and profitability for both those crops. And it allowed us to grow throughout the year. Since tomatoes are 10% of our overall value and baby salad greens are about the same, if we can take 20-25% of the farm revenue and shelter that from a lot of the weather extreme, that’s been really good.

Intervale Community Farm, March 2016

Intervale Community Farm, March 2016

Have you diversified your market to response to climate change effects?

We haven’t done a lot to diversify our markets and I don’t think that would really help us be more resilient because our market is not our chief constraint.  Having that close relationship with our CSA members is as strong and as favorable a market as we could possibly have for weathering climate disruptions.

In general, I don’t think our market has shifted in response to climate change. But I think the fundamental premise of security and diversity in our crops has proven itself in response to upheavals in the weather and climate.  Years that it’s cold and wet we have super greens, brassicas, and onion crops which people enjoy, and years when it’s hot and dry, we have excellent melons, tomatoes, and peppers. Almost no matter the weather, we have some things that are really thriving.

If a new farmer came in here today, what advice would you give to her or him?

If they were in a floodplain, I would say, try and get the land that’s the highest land you can, as there are lots of floodplains I’d not recommend people to start a farm or grow vegetables on. It’s pretty hard to build your business without having at least some significant % of your land that is not very flood prone.

So I’d say make sure you have some high land, try to concentrate your production as much as you can on that land, have tunnels, grow a lot of different crops, make sure you either have a highly diverse market or you have a highly committed market – in our case we have a highly committed market.  As Andy advises and concludes our talk,


Pay attention to establishing a strong track record of growing good produce in the years that you’re not hampered. Then any goodwill you’ve engendered during that time will be needed and you’ll  have it banked against disruptions down the road.


 

Intervale sign

 

 

 

 

Expecting the Unexpected – Dairy Farming and climate change in Vermont

In our first interview of  this series, Moving to Higher Ground, we talked to Amanda Andrews, owner of Tamarack Hollow Farm about her decision to move to higher ground.  In this blog, we check in with Yves Gonnet, owner of Midnight Goat Farm, who also recently moved to higher ground;  he relocated his dairy goat farm from the Huntington valley to the Huntingdon hills in Vermont.

Midnight goat's new dairy barn

Midnight goat’s new dairy barn

Here are some snippets from recent conversations.

Well Suzy, it’s May 4 2015 we’re expecting the temps to hit 78 with 12mph winds gusting up to 21mph mid day.  As a lay person who farms goats, bushes and bacteria, I have noticed some things in the past decade.  I think the operative words are extreme and unpredictable.  Colder longer, hotter faster and much much wetter (at times).

July 10, 2015.   I wish we could have 3 straight days of sun.  It is getting old watching hay go to seed or get pounded into the ground by rain.

July 20, 2015.  Headline weather: “Hail, Thunderstorms and Flooding Hammer New England.”  Hail the size of tennis balls fell in New Hampshire. The day will likely end up as one of the top five hottest for this summer in New England. The heat index is close to 100 in southern New England.  

In Northwest Vermont, we’re spared the hailstones, but we’re sweltering with hot temperatures, then hit with heavy rains.  Hand milking goats is quite the workout.

August 11, 2015  Heavy rain in most parts of Vermont.  We’ve had 50% more rainfall since June 1, when compared to National Weather Service’s recorded normal climate as measured from 1981 to 2010.

midnightgoatfarm-w280pxh140px

Yves Gonnet herding his dairy goats at his farm, Midnight Goat.

Center for Sustainable Agriculture, CSA So how does a dairy goat farmer manage weather in Vermont?  Can you describe your decision-making to move your farm to higher ground?  What role did climate change play?

Yves: We moved our farm operation to higher ground to help avoid the issues we had with flooding, increased water levels and encroaching wetlands.  We settled recently in a spot three miles from where we had been, but 500 feet higher in elevation.  A nearby water source was important to us so we selected a property, which is bounded by the Baker Brook, a year round protected waterway.  Over the past seven years, we have seen the weather extremes become more intense and have sought greater elevation and easily drainable landscape to help us buffer these extremes.  Where we had been located we were more and more frequently finding ourselves trapped by the Cobb Brook unable to get our goats to pasture.

 


Over the past seven years, we have seen the weather extremes become more intense and have sought greater elevation and easily drainable landscape to help us buffer these extremes.


 

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

Yves: I don’t think we are in a position anymore to expect weather.  It is more a matter of reacting to what it is.  So far we have been able to cope with this year’s extremes fairly well, but are always learning how to improve our systems for new surprises.

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

Yves: We started looking for our new spot a couple years ago.  Our criteria was pretty specific so it took some time to find.  We started building fall 2014.


We moved our farm operation to higher ground- 500 feet higher in elevation. –  to help avoid the issues we had with flooding, increased water levels and encroaching wetlands. 


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

Yves: We looked for southern exposure, goat forage, fruit trees, maple forest, running water and sufficient acreage.

CSA:  Moving forward, are you planning for weather changes due to climate change?

Yves: Absolutely.  We have made ourselves much more autonomous.  We provide our own solar power, have over sized waste water systems and water supplies and plan to continue to build systems, which make us less vulnerable to weather changes.

Midnight goat - barn

Solar panels on Midnight Goat Farm’s barn

CSA:  Are climate change effects affecting your goats and kidding?  If so, how?  And how are you dealing with this?

Yves: The extreme cold of this March made kidding more difficult and dangerous for the newborns.  Fortunately, we were prepared, from prior January kiddings, for cold and quick changing weather.  We have divided the kidding areas into well protected spaces, which allow for spot heating and complete enclosure when necessary.  We employ heated kidding boxes for newborns and have internet accessible cameras installed to monitor expectant does and their offspring.


We employ heated kidding boxes for newborns and have internet accessible cameras installed to monitor expectant does and their offspring.


CSA:  Is there any advice you would like to give to other farmers about climate change and its effects?

Yves: Be prepared for unpredictable weather and shortages of feed.  Don’t take water for granted.

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