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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

 

 

 

 

More than just dirt, our soils are alive. Healthy soil ecosystems, like ones found in nature, are dynamic and complex. Plants, microbes and fungi work together to cycle nutrients, filter water, and regulate the climate. When treated correctly and allowed to function properly, soils can do wonders for the productivity of a farm and the quality of food it produces, and Vermont farmers are starting to take notice.

Cover crops show healthy soil where soil and roots are one system

Cover crops show healthy soil where soil and roots are one system.

At the 5th annual Vermont Farm to Plate Gathering, farmers, community members and scientists came together to discuss the inseparable link between healthy soils, clean water, and good food. Success stories of higher yields from no-till fields and saving money from using less pesticides and herbicides were shared, showing that paying attention to soil health pays off. Though some soil conservation practices may go against conventional techniques, one thing is clear: the healthiest and most successful farms are taking care of their soils by farming like nature.


Plant and soil are one and need each other to function properly.


Nature’s time-tested processes have allowed organisms to survive on this planet for billions of years. It’s time for us to use these processes to our advantage, an idea known  “biomimicry”. In the natural world, forests and prairies flourish without pesticides or plows. Trees and plants remain year-round, their leaves nourish the soil in the fall and their roots hold water and soil in place when it rains. Come springtime, these ecosystems are teeming with growth and life. Nature knows how to farm.

Key-note speaker Ray “The Soils Guy” Archuleta spoke passionately and urgently about farming like nature. (Hear Ray on Across the Fence.) According to Ray, “healthy soil is covered all year round,” just like in nature. Cover crops are the most essential component of restoring and maintaining soil health. Plant and soil are one and need each other to function properly. Plants keep the soil cool and moist, and retain soil structure with their roots. Plants take energy from the sun and feed the microbes, which in exchange pull more nutrients from the soil to the plant.  Allowing these natural processes to occur significantly decreases the need to purchase and apply additional chemicals and fertilizers that may runoff and damage local waterways during heavy precipitation events.


Healthy soil is covered all year round – just like in nature.


When soil is kept in place and macropores are allowed to form, water quality impacts from agricultural runoff and sedimentation are greatly reduced. Soils also play a large role in regulating carbon. Tilling breaks apart the link between plant and soil, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and depriving microorganisms of their food. Soils become starved, and fail to function properly. But when covered with detritus and plants, soils sequester that carbon and use it for growth instead.

When Ray Archuleta visits a farm, the first thing he looks for is how the soil in the field compares to soil in the forest. If the soils are healthy, a shovel-full from each should look the same, with a layer of detritus, or organic matter, on top, and soil aggregates clinging to the roots of plants on the bottom.

Is your soil bare or covered? Learn more about the secrets in the soil by watching the videos on Ray’s Soil Health Page.

Contributor: Michelle Graziosi, the ECO AmeriCorps Water Quality Research Technician at UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, attended her first Vermont Farm to Plate gathering.   Michelle graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences.

On-farm and field trials in Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont show that cover cropping produces a number of financial benefits for farmers and wider environmental benefits for the community. Cover cropping increases soil organic matter (aka carbon) and microbial diversity while suppressing weeds and stabilizing soils, which can help farmers transition to organic methods as well as improve their agricultural practices cost-effectively. Fields with a cover crop have less erosion and less runoff, meaning nutrients stay in the soils, better not only for soil quality and crop yields, but also for preserving water quality and ecosystem health.


Fields with a cover crop experience less erosion and less runoff, meaning minerals stay in the soils, better not only for soil quality and crop yields, but also for preserving water quality, ecosystem, and climate health.


While the benefits of cover crops researched by Northeast Extension teams in crop, field, and soils are clear, the prescribed planting methods, timing, and seeding rates need careful consideration for successful seed establishment and sufficient cover growth depending on a number of factors including the site conditions, harvesting schedules, and farmer circumstances.

In Westford, Vermont, a cover crop of radish, rye, turnip, and white clover was successfully seeded after corn was harvested at Tony Pouliot’s farm under the guidance of UVM Extension agronomy expert Heather Darby.

Pouliot was pleased to see his soil protected, the most valuable asset of his farm as you can see in this Across the Fence video.  Heather Darby and her team at UVM Northwest Soils and Crops provide invaluable advice to Vermont farmers in choosing appropriate cover crop seed mix, deciding on the methods and timing of planting whether before or after harvesting the cash crop, and many specifics related to the farm’s cropping systems, equipment available, location, topography and soil types.

A 2014 Cornell cover crop experiment with soybeans no-till planted into mulch from a winter cover crop at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub showed that a farm’s net profit was highest when seeding rates were double the recommended seeding rates of conventional soybean production. Five planting densities were compared and the crop population, weed suppression, and crop yields were measured.  Matthew Ryan’s report on cover cropping strategies and his research projects are part of Cornell Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab.

Cropping strategies for Organic Food Grain Crop Production, Matthew Ryan

Cropping strategies for Organic Food Grain Crop Production, Matthew Ryan

UVM Extension’s Northwest Crops and Soils program produces guidance and tips on interseeding cover crops for Vermont farmers growing feedstock such as corn and soybeans. Advice concerns the timing of seeding, the level and depth of seeding, available labor and proper equipment, and altering other management practice (e.g. pesticide applications and tillage), which would harm cover crops.

Roller crimper turns cover crop into mulch for cash crop

Roller crimper turns cover crop into mulch for cash crop


The benefits of cover cropping reach beyond the farmer to the community and the climate.


Importantly, research has found that cover cropping may have no negative impact on corn yields and can sometimes have a positive yield effect. When over-wintered cover crops are “terminated” with a roller crimper in the spring, the mulch mat, which is formed suppresses weeds during the growing season for cash crops. In addition to increased profits to the farmer, the energy savings related to less diesel fuel used, less fertilizers and pesticides applied, result in less greenhouse gas emissions from the farm. The benefits of cover cropping reach beyond the farmer to the community and the climate.

 

 

 

The Betz family started High Ledge Farm in 1999. Paul and Kate Betz grow certified organic vegetables on a small parcel of 2.5 acres and manage a 4100 sq. ft. of greenhouses for plant and tomato production. They have a CSA program and sell their produce at the Montpelier Farmers’ Market.

High Ledge Farm

Impact of Rain

The climate change effects, which worry the Betz family, are heavy rain events. These have resulted in soil fines rising to the soil surface and sealing it so that in seedlings have difficulty emerging. The Betz’ have experimented with the timing of their plantings and tried multiple plantings to increase the opportunities for seeds to germinate in these potentially adverse conditions.

This past year the Betz family planted their carrots twice because of the risk of soils sealing and preventing sufficient germination. Planting twice meant two opportunities for seeds to germinate.

The problem is that any time bare soils are exposed directly to rain with minimal cover to protect them from the impact of raindrops, erosion can occur and soil structure can deteriorate with the possibility of fines rising with the excess water. By minimizing the time that bare soils are exposed directly to rain and keeping soil covered with a crop as much as possible will in turn reduce the possibility of fines and soil surface sealing.  The UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture has fact sheet about controlling drainage and increasing the water holding capacity of soils. Rather than take a gamble with weather forecasts to anticpate the possilbity of soil crusting, improving soil composition with organic matter and using winter cover crops to lessen impact of rain will help soils retains more water.

Protecting soils from rain

Improving soil composition with organic matter and using winter cover crops to lessen the impact of rain will help soils retains more water. The Natural Resource Council provide a useful guide on the factors affecting soil crusting and measures which can be taken to improve soil quality

UVM Extension agronomist Dan Hudson explains that healthy soils not only hold water but can also help stabilize the movement of water and soil particles. Cover crops are a critical part of the soil system as they help support microbial activity which further enhances soil structure and organic matter in the soils. The key to healthy soils are:

  • organic matter in soils
  • debris and plant cover on soil surface
  • living roots in soils

Cover crops are a critical part of the soil system as they help support microbial activity which further strengthens soil structure and enhances organic matter in soils.


 

Too much tillage can damage living roots and the soil structure and living roots hence reducing the microbial activity, which makes nutrients available to plants.

As Hudson describes in his soil blog, healthy soils have high microbial activity with microbes secreting organic compounds and releasing nutrients in plant-available form.

 

Reducing risks with greenhouses

While the effects of climate change include heavy rains with impacts on soils and a longer growing season in Vermont, the temperature variations within the growing season are widening. This risk of a cold snap or heat wave can undermine any perceived benefit of a longer growing season.

Recognizing the variability and extremes of Vermont weather, farmers have turned to greenhouses and hoop houses in growing numbers.   Their strategies for coping with variable weather start from the ground up.  Maintaining and improving soil quality is essential with additions of organic matter, cover cropping, and minimizing tillage. Soils which have more plant matter including living roots in the soil and leaves on the soil have increased microbes which help retain more moisture during dry spells and can cope with absorbing more rainfall during wet periods.


Essentially, healthy soils with high organic matter perform better in both dry and wet weather periods


While soils with higher organic matter content can help mitigate wider ranges in precipitation, greenhouses help mitigate wider ranges in temperature. Using a greenhouse to control the environment, the Betz family benefits at both the start and the end of the growing season so that the swings in temperatures during Vermont’s shoulder seasons of spring and fall don’t result in swings in income.

Contributions from Catherine Lowther, Goddard College, Faculty in the BA in Sustainability Program, Chair of the Sustainability Committee and UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture

“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!   

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.

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.

 

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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!   

 

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