Rain, rain, go away: Local farmers wrangle with a difficult season

By REEVE GUTSELL For the Gazette
December 31, 2018

Farming is hard. Ask any local farmer, and they’ll tell you the same thing: From wrangling with the vagaries of weather to struggling with pests and diseases, farming is hard on the body, the mind and the finances. Unfortunately, climate change is making life even more challenging.

This year, for instance, rainfalls in Hadley in July and August were 75 percent higher than average, according to Phil Korman, Executive Director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).

Data provided in UMass Extension’s “Vegetable Notes” indicated a 71 percent increase in heavy precipitation events (more than two inches) since 1991, and rainfall amounts that were 200-300 percent above normal this fall. This year’s heavy rains caused succession plantings not to come to fruition, put disease pressure on crops, and made it hard to work efficiently in the fields. (In contrast, our area experienced extreme drought during the same time period in 2016).

As part of creating a more resilient farm system, the Hampshire College Farm used funding from the National Science Foundation to convert this and one other 1950s Allis-Chalmers tractor from gasoline to solar-charged battery power. SUBMITTED PHOTO/Reeve Gutsell

According to Jeremy Plotkin of Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, “This year was a really dramatic example of how climate change can affect us. … Even with dry, sandy soil, there was still too much rain. At our new farm store, we had trouble sourcing local products, especially greens; the impact is all around.”

At the Hampshire College Farm, students and staff slogged through the pouring rain week after week harvesting vegetables for the campus dining hall and the college’s Community Supported Agriculture program. Vehicles got stuck in the mud. As of mid-November, the second cutting of hay for the livestock had yet to occur because the fields were too wet.

Increased precipitation is only one of the challenges that climate change is expected to bring. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), although farmers in New England may benefit from an increased growing season due to warmer weather, they also can expect both longer, drier dry spells and heavier downpours of rain, as well as warmer winters, hotter summers and more erratic spring weather. Additionally, farmers can expect increased damage from storms, increased competition from weeds and invasives, increased insect and pathogen damage, and increased livestock parasites.

What to do? Diversity, flexibility and responsiveness are key. The Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education program encourages farmers to develop resilient agricultural operations that are diverse, healthy, flexible and self-reliant through strategies such as whole-farm planning and cover crop “cocktails” (a mix of cover crops to improve soil health and prevent erosion). Echoing this analysis, Hampshire College Farm Director Nancy Hanson says, “If you knew that the weather was always going to be drier, you would have irrigation at your fingertips — but you don’t know what the weather will bring. The real answer is diversification; you need some of everything.”

Indeed, farmers are beginning to diversify. CISA’s Margaret Christie says, “People are changing their crop mix, relying less on crops like squash that are susceptible to phytophthera (blight), which is especially bad when rain comes in large amounts at once. … Diversifying markets and products can make a farm business more resilient, giving you options if weather impacts one crop but not another one. Adding value-added products allows you to turn lower-priced raw ingredients into higher-priced finished products.” In addition, farmers are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint on the farm. Adds Christie, “We are seeing more interest in silvo-pasturing, which is a great way to sequester carbon. We are seeing a lot of interest in increasing efficiency [and] reducing energy costs through conservation and renewables, (which is) also a method of mitigating climate impact.”

Fortunately, help is available to assist farmers in implementing these changes. Responding to farmers’ need to adapt, respond and help mitigate the pressures of climate change (through strategies such as increased energy efficiency and carbon sequestration), both state and local agencies offer funding. CISA, for instance, provided a limited number of no-interest farm loans this fall for up to $10,000 each. This is the fifth time since Hurricane Irene in 2011 that the fund has been opened. Before this past season it had already provided $221,000 in loans to 24 farms.

In addition, Massachusetts’ Agricultural Climate Resiliency and Efficiencies (ACRE) program reimburses farmers for funds spent on climate change related challenges. As of the end of March 2018, ACRE had disbursed $500,000 to 16 farms across the state, primarily for no-till equipment.

Many farmers combine multiple grants to get the equipment they need. For instance, Plotkin recently combined three grants from ACRE, the USDA, and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to purchase a large wood-chip boiler to heat his greenhouse with renewable energy. The Hampshire College Farm utilized funding from the National Science Foundation to create a solar-powered refrigerated trailer and to convert two 1950s Allis-Chalmers tractors from gasoline to battery power, charged with solar.

Although some farmers find the situation too difficult and are leaving farming altogether, Jason Dragon, Assistant Farm Director at Hampshire College, says that often farmers adapt on the fly; it’s part of their disposition. As Harrison Bardwell, a Hatfield farmer, says in “Vegetable Notes,” “There are major downfalls in choosing a career and life like this one, but we cannot let this stop us…. It was a great season to see which varieties held up better than others under these extreme conditions … We look at the 2018 season as an experience, not a loss.”

Reeve Gutsell is the Food, Farm, and Sustainability Program Coordinator at the Hampshire College Farm. She is also a volunteer at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. She has a masters degree in resource management and conservation from Antioch University, and a masters in creative writing from Naropa University.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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