Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Climate Change and Local Farms - Jericho VT Panel Discussion

By Maeve Kim.

Climate Change and Local Farms (Nov 18, 2019)
was hosted by Transition Town Jericho, building community to build resilience for whatever the future holds. 

Close to 50 people attended, including five farmers on a panel and several in the audience

Note: Direct quotations from panel members are indicated by quotation marks. Other comments are paraphrases, as accurate as possible.

Panelists included
Alissa White, UVM researcher and farming advocate.
David Zuckerman (VT Lieutenant Governor), of Full Moon Farm in Hinesburg.
John Hayden of The Farm Between in Jeffersonville.
Tucker Andrews vegetable farming in Jericho.
Bruce Hennessey of Maple Wind Farm in Richmond.

From left to right, Bruce, Tucker, and David.
Questions discussed -
How climate change and extreme weather have impacted our farms.
How our communities have supported farms in bouncing back.
What resources farmers would like to see to help them better address climate-related risks.

Alissa White greeted everyone and gave a brief overview. Alissa worked at a local nursery for five years and is now a Ph.D. student at UVM who has been studying the direct impacts of climate change in New England. 

The most immediate and most noticeable effects have been weather extremes: more frequent precipitation events and more frequent droughts. Over 70% of crop loss in the past five years was related to too much water or too little water. She explained a recent study by the Cornell University using data from the Farm Service Agency that suggests that if we (humans, worldwide) can reduce carbon emissions, we may be able to delay the most drastic effects of climate change by as many as forty or even fifty years.

It's hard to talk about "climate change". The issue is 
1-complex and distant
Alissa and those she works with have found that it's much easier to talk about local, direct events. Ex: Let's talk about increased rainfall in specific locales and how farmers there are coping with it. 
Alissa offered info from a "listening tour" that included about two hundred fruit and vegetable farmers. (A similar study is now going on with livestock farmers.)

How ARE local farmers coping?
They are improving the health of their soil.
They're using cover crops and mulch.
They've reduced tillage.
They've made some changes in crop selection, growing more perennial crops and more drought-resistant varieties.
They're using very tall raised beds to keep plants out of the way of flooding.
They're leaving no bare soil on slopes.
Many have been assessing their whole site: Where are the wet areas? How can we store water so we can have it during droughts?

What have farmers listed as their main worries?
We might not have the knowledge, technology, or skills to deal with changes in the New England climate.
We don't have the money to make changes that we see are needed.
What resources are farmers already using?
- their land's natural capital and built capital
- loans, crop insurance
- strategies to help manage soil and water

What resources do farmers wish for?
- available emergency funds for unexpected loss
- community relationships (such as the help and support after Irene)
- opportunities for peer-to-peer conversations
- more help from extension services
- reliable local markets

The importance of reliable local markets came up again and again, all evening long. Farmers stressed how vitally important it is for us all to support our local farmers by buying their produce at farm stands or through CSAs or in retail outlets and by patronizing restaurants that specialize in local meats and produce.

Here are some key points from the members of the panel. Each farmer was introduced with photos of his farm, many of the pictures showing inundated fields and destroyed produce.

David Zuckerman, legislator and owner of Full Moon Farm (with his wife Rachel Nevitt)

For years, the farm was in the Burlington Intervale. The couple moved to Hinesburg to get away from more and more frequent river flooding. Their new location, however, has been the site of several high wind events, and an unusually dry summer in 2018 resulted in a decrease of about 35,000 pounds of produce, a significant hit to their bottom line.

Some coping methods:
- tie-downs over the tops of hoop houses
- investigating ways of storing water for droughts
- rotating crops (although two or three consecutive wet years means that they have to start many of the same crops in the drier fields a few years in a row rather than doing as much rotation as they'd like)

David: People say individuals can't make a difference. Or, here in Vermont, we might say we don't have to get involved because we've got lots of good guys in office. Every citizen should reach out to their legislators once a month or so - not to tell them what to do but to ask questions. Ask What are you doing about regenerative agriculture? Believe me: They'll ask around. They'll do some research. You will have started them thinking. They'll know that regenerative agriculture is of interest to their constituency and they'll want to be on top of it.

Bruce Hennessey, Maple Wind Farm, Richmond, and Huntington (with his family).

For the first 17 years of Bruce's twenty-year farming career, he raised organic vegetables. He started out on a hilltop farm in Huntington, with a relatively short growing season and not very high-quality soil. Moving to flatter land removed some challenges but came with new challenges, primarily flooding.

Maple Wind Farm switched to diversified livestock on pasture, in large part due to a desire to keep the land covered and protected. "We think of ourselves as farming grass", and that requires high-quality land and high-quality nutrients for our animals.

Maple Wind Farm has been hit with severe weather-related losses in recent years. Flooding has required more moving around of animals than is desirable (putting stress on animals and humans), and flooding caused a short that led to an electrical fire.

"I wish I had a more accurate forecasting tool. Every day we made decisions based on the weather." The farm has an emergency response plan, but events like the recent Halloween rainstorm (which wasn't predicted to be anywhere near as bad as it was) are just too much for the plan. "We need a disaster preparedness plan and we're hoping to work with other farmers and learn how to develop one."

Tucker Andrews, owner of a small Jericho vegetable farm.

Tucker has a full-time non-farming job as well as maintaining his small farm on leased land. He grew up locally and started working for local farmers in his teens. He has one reliable buyer for the produce raised on his +/- two acres and hasn't had to spend time with marketing.  

Tucker has seen significant changes in the ecosystem, even in the last ten years, particularly at both ends of the growing season. He knows that, with a small farm and old equipment, he can't be resilient in the face of a massive weather event. (He pointed out that farmers whose land isn't "legally" on a flood plain have few recourses after major floods.)

Tucker: Looking out the next 100-150 years, how will we make choices that will let us use the land we have in the best way? We as a country need to eliminate government subsidies for unsustainable agriculture.

S'ra DeSantes  - co-owner for 15 years of Diggers Mirth Farm in the Burlington Intervale; now runs UVM's Catamount Farm and is co-director of the university's Farmers Training Program.

S'ra left farming because of "constant angst", constant anxiety, always dreading the next flood. It wasn't just Hurricane Irene in 2011; there were three floods that year.

Increased flooding and 
wetness results in increased disease for plants. More frequent wind events result in an increase in harmful insects. (Some insects get blown into New England from farther south. Other insects are now having more life cycles per year because of warmer climates.)

We're seeing changes not only to the frequency of floods but to the soil value and effects of floods. A hundred years ago, farmers could know that floods would bring healthy soil. Now, with so much industry and housing, floodwaters contain industrial runoff and sewage. We can't just wash our produce off and sell it.

Some ways that Catamount Farm is coping with climate changes:
- Once corn, peas, etc. get started, they plant under crops such as clover. After harvesting the veggies, the under crop is mowed and continues growing as a winter cover crop.
- The farm took one particularly wet field out of production and now uses it to grow mulch such as grass and legumes. The mulch is harvested and put on other fields to increase organic matter.
- less tillage
- use of "silage tarping"

John Hayden, owner of The Farm Between in Jeffersonville (with his wife Nancy)

John and Nancy have farmed their land for twenty-eight years, and have made many changes to adjust to challenges and as their land-use philosophy has developed. 

BLOGGER'S NOTE: John and Nancy's recent book, Farming On the Wild Side, is a fascinating and inspiring tale of the couple's dedication to the land.

The Haydens first raised chickens, turkeys, and other livestock, which increased the fertility on what was a sterile monoculture of mostly reed canary grass when they bought the farmland. Then they raised vegetables until the spring 2011 flooding followed by Irene resulted in lost crops, lost equipment, and property damage. They now specialize in organic fruit trees, berry bushes, and pollinator plants.

Ways to cope with climate change:
- more biodiversity
- composting
- no tilling
- no pesticides
- growing perennial plants
- embracing and celebrating "scruffy agriculture"

John: Climate change is only one part of a more global problem. World-wide economics are now based on growth: more things, bigger things. And that's a dead-end, literally. We as human beings across the globe need to increase ecological literacy. We need to increase the sense that we all belong to a community and to the earth.

We can't just aim for sustainable agriculture! It's probably too late for that. We have to practice regenerative agriculture. We have to regenerate our soils, our water, and our farms - and, in so doing, we will regenerate our souls and our communities. 

Some take-aways:

The resilience of local farmers is rooted in local communities. 

  • Farmers need local people to be willing to buy local produce. They need people to understand what they're paying for when they pay more for produce than they might in supermarkets. 
  • Many of the panel talked movingly about the help and support of friends, neighbors, and family members. 
  • S'ra talked about the "crop mob" of volunteers who showed up to help harvest Intervale produce before one flood.

We as a society need to see an end to government subsidies for huge monocultures that are destroying the soil.

We need increased easier funding for organizations like UVM Extension Service so less time is spent writing grants and more time can be spent with farmers.

We need increased focus on ecological preservation and less focus on market-driven large growth.

Perhaps foremost, we can each help by improving our ecological literacy.

Read Bernie's Farmers Creed folktale, Nothing to Waste   at https://litterwithastorytotell.blogspot.com/2011/11/nothing-to-waste.html

Jericho Vermont
Images of Community
Intimate, caring, and personal; reflecting the community and its stories.
Slide from John Hayden
Book ReviewFarming on the Wild Side” - The evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery.

“ We can all affect change.” Thus, the local book “Farming on the Wild Side” - The evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery ends after showing us how The Farm Between in Jeffersonville owned and by the authors Nancy and John Hayden was and is continually regenerated Farming on the Wild Side – The Evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery speaks to us of love of the land and all living species, and to the practical needs and ways to work with land and living species for all (species) benefit.

This book is not just for small farmers. Indeed, it is also a story for families who want to feed their children healthy food and an equally healthy recognition of our relationship with the bio-diverse forms of life and their little-understood relationships that form a system that feeds us.

If you want encouragement as well as practical advice on stewarding your land be it 100 sq feet or multiple acres, grow a small garden or plot of flowers, grow fruit or vegetables truly organically, this story and guide will help you with the many changes we are facing environmentally, socially, economically.
John and Nancy seek to create a regenerative food production system that at the same time improves soil and water quality – and they tell us many ways they have incorporated this goal – including failures and successes. Theirs is not a vanilla approach. Creative ideas-ventures kept at a small scale are easier to test out without risking overall failure. (“Diversity equals stability,” they advise).

We hear how soil is alive. These two ecologists and organic farmers (John likes the descriptor “practicing regenerative agro ecologist”) explain how soil is alive, how to do less damage to the soil, how to improve soil, and why this is important. Most valuably, their how-to’s are for the most part practical and applicable for even small yards.

Read this book for the philosophy offered on adaptation, (social and economic) resiliency, relationships with all living matter, pests and invasive plants, as well as practical approaches to improving soil, growing no chemical food and flowers, improving the soil in creative inexpensive ways, supporting native bees and other pollinators and recommendations on a specific nut, berry and other fruit plants.

Then as they suggest in the preface: Take action on behalf of life – Conserve or plant something! 

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate this thorough summary, Maeve! Would you please consider adding S'ra's name and credentials to the introductory list at the top of your posting? Many thanks!