Tag Archive: 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

Normal temperatures at the end of March in Burlinton, VT are typically in the mid 40s like today.  Over Easter weekend, it was 16 degrees warmer than normal. With the warmest winter on record, what does this mean for Vermont farmers?

Revisiting Tamarack Hollow Farm, I checked in with co-owner Amanda Andrews. How is your new location working out?

Our new farm was great last season and held up during the heavy spring rains while our old farm was flooding. That said, heavy rains continue to be a worry, and so we are planning with erosion in mind.

To control erosion, we are planting low-growing cover crops between beds, moving towards a permanent raised bed system. We also installed drainage tile in one field with heavier soils to ensure it dries out quickly, even with heavy storms.

Spring is coming early this year – did we even have winter?   How has this affected your plans? Any thoughts on pests and diseases?

greens in hoophouse intervale

“With the warm winter, we are expecting heavier pest and disease pressure, so we are planning to use more row covers to control insects – and the diseases they spread.”

“Certain vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers), we are only growing in tunnels. I am growing additional varieties of greens this season, especially looking for heat and disease tolerance as the three month forecast looks like a warm spring and summer.”

 

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

 

 

 

 

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!   

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. 


 

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