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Climate report: Vermont agriculture is at risk

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Posted on June 5, 2014 |
By Zach Despart



Climate change on industry Bill Suhr2383.jpg
CHAMPLAIN ORCHARDS CO-OWNER Bill Suhr, shown on a tour of his Shoreham orchard and facilities this past November, has had to adapt the varieties of fruits he plants and the harvest schedule because of changes in the climate. Independent file photo/Zach Despart

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series.

ADDISON COUNTY — Climate change has forced Addison County farmers and sugarmakers to rethink the way they do business, amid worries that increasing temperatures and precipitation threaten Vermont’s backbone industries.

A comprehensive report released by the White House last month says that the diverse effects of climate change are already being felt across the nation. The report, the culmination of two years of research by hundreds of scientists, concludes that some areas of the country, such as the Southwest, will see worsening droughts, while the Northeast will see higher temperatures and more precipitation.

In Addison County, food producers said they’ve noticed a change in Vermont’s climate — warmer winters, wetter springs, unpredictable thawing cycles, longer growing seasons and periods of summertime drought.

MAPLE WOES

An earlier spring thaw has made the already fickle maple syrup business even more difficult, sugarmakers said.

Jeff Dunham of Starksboro said he’s been sugaring for half a century, since he was a kid.

He said that in recent years, the weather in February has not reliably produced the heat-and-thaw cycles needed to get the sap flowing.

“We’re getting more seasons where it stays really cold for a long period and then gets warm, instead of cycling,” Dunham said. “We don’t seem to have as many normal sugaring seasons, that’s the perception.”

Dunham said the sugaring season is also beginning earlier.

“We’re tapping a week or two earlier than we did 15 years ago,” Dunham said.

After sugaring in Connecticut for a time, Douglas Dwy has been producing syrup in Brandon for the last 25 years. He said the season definitely starts earlier now than it did when he started.

“When I first came here, the rule of thumb was tap on Town Meeting Day,” Dwy said. “That’s long gone as far as I’m concerned.”

Because an unpredictable warm spell could get the sap running quickly, Dwy said he is sure to be prepared.

“We never did much until the end of February; now if it’s nice in the first or second week of January, I’m on it,” Dwy said.

Dwy said he worried how a warmer, more volatile climate would affect the industry in the future.

“You always are worried; I have grandchildren and I hope to pass my property on to them,” he said. “I don’t know what we can do about (climate change), we’re just a small flea on the mouse’s back.”

Henry Emmons, a sugarmaker who lives in Starksboro, said he’s worried, too.

“A lot of people say don’t worry about it, but I think you have to worry about it,” Emmons said. “It’s getting harder to predict, and this year I think was the worst one.”

This year, when freezing temperatures persisted well into March, sugarmakers reported lower yields on the season. Emmons said he normally hopes to produce 3,800 gallons of syrup in a season, but this year missed that goal by 1,000 gallons.

Tom Audet of Orwell, who has been sugaring for four decades, said he’s noticed the season creep earlier by as much as three weeks.

“It’s not unusual for us to be boiling in mid-February, when that was always way early,” Audet said, adding that he’s given up looking to the calendar for the start of the season.

Audet said he frets about impact of climate change.

“There’s a concern, without a doubt,” Audet said. “We sort of face a challenge that we need vacuum systems to create better run. We can’t wait for Mother Nature to give it to us.”

Audet said that new vacuum and spout technology have allowed sugarmakers to keep production up, even when the sap flow slows to a dribble.

“The industry is in tune to the new technology,” Audet said. “We’re able to process the sap much quicker, and make a higher grade of syrup.”

Because recent thaws have occurred so quickly — often in a matter of weeks — Audet said he has equipped his lines and tanks to handle a large amount of sap in a short period of time.

“We just need to be on top of it — once we’ve tapped, if there is a super run, we can hold it,” Audet said. “We can process much quicker than we used to.”

FRUIT FARMERS

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Bill Suhr of Champlain Orchards in Shoreham is taking that adage to heart as he adapts his farm to a warmer, wetter climate.

For example, he can now grow varieties of fruit that Vermont’s climate previously couldn’t sustain.

“Historically, we haven’t been able to grow Pink Lady or Granny Smith apples, because we reach a freeze in October before the fruit ripens,” Suhr said. “We’re now expanding with Granny Smith, as we are seeing our harvest extended each year later in the fall. With global warming, our season is extending.”

Suhr said it is better to stagger crops so they all do not ripen simultaneously in the fall. This keeps farmhands busy, and ensures that Champlain Orchards will have room to store all its produce.

But while Vermont’s climate is now suitable to new varieties of fruit, it is less suitable for varieties grown in the state for centuries.

“This will no longer be wonderful Macintosh country, so we are taking the approach of adapting different varieties,” Suhr said.

Though associated with the more humid climate of the Southeastern United States, Suhr said he’s experimenting with peaches. Whether this crop will be successful is far from certain — late spring frosts have ruined the bounty the last two years.

“The weather patterns are far from reliable, and are more unpredictable,” Suhr said. “We’re seeing more rain and more volume of rain.”

Suhr said more rain is particularly dangerous to raspberries.

“If you have extending wetting periods, the berries will mold and not be marketable,” he said. “Blueberries are much more tolerant of moisture.”

But spring deluges don’t mean that fields are soggy throughout the season — Suhr said that it’s not uncommon to see drought conditions during dry spells, posing a further risk to crops.

Acknowledging that his small farm, and even the state of Vermont, can do little to slow climate change on a global scale, Suhr said this doesn’t prevent him from reducing his own carbon footprint.

“We’re keeping an open mind to staying ahead of the curve,” he said. “It’s not a light switch that’s going to change overnight, and it would behoove of us to adapt to what’s already been occurring.”

Sam Lester of Lester Farm in New Haven said climate change is making farming more expensive, cutting into already thin profit margins.

“We’re very concerned about it, especially with the wet springs we’ve been having, making it tougher for us to get crops into the ground,” Lester said.

Every day counts in Vermont’s short growing season, and if fields don’t dry quickly, it becomes too late to plant some crops.

“Last year, when we had 20-odd days of rain, we didn’t get in the field until July 11,” Lester said. “It was too late for growing pumpkins and winter squash.”

Lester said the increased precipitation has left him no choice but to place tiles on his fields, which removes extra water from the soil. The process has improved crop yields, but is expensive.

“To do our 11-acre main field, it’s $17,000,” Lester said.

But even planting on top of elevated tiles doesn’t solve all of Lester’s problems, as huge puddles form in between the beds after rainstorms.

“Last year we de-watered the field for 19 days with a sub pump,” Lester said. “As soon as we got done at three in the afternoon, here came the thunderstorms from New York.”

More powerful thunderstorms also pose a threat to crops. A severe storm that swept through the southern part of the county last week brought tornado-strength wind gusts and half-dollar-sized hail. Luckily for Lester, the swath of damaged passed to the south of New Haven.

“We were in the field and watched it go right by us,” he said.

But there is a bit of good news — the impact of delayed planting is lessened by a delayed fall frost.

“We’re not getting the frost as easily as we used to,” Lester said. “The past three or four years, the growing season has gone all the way to Nov. 1. We’re picking sweet corn well after Columbus Day.”

PEST PROBLEM

In the past, a Vermont winter was too much for pests that dared to venture this far north. Now, farmers and sugarmakers alike worry this is no longer the case.

“I think the biggest concern is what kind of pests it might bring in if we don’t have killing winters,” Dunham said, fearing the proliferation of caterpillars and beetles that prey on maple trees.

“We’re seeing bugs we haven’t seen that are now getting up this way,” Lester said. “The bugs are wintering over, and it’s a whole difference.”

Lester said that Lester Farm only plants organically certified seeds, which are not treated with fungicide and are more vulnerable to pests. Suhr said he’s particularly concerned with the brown marmorated stink bug.

“It over-winters in houses and barns, but it has phenomenal reproductive capabilities and is extremely hard to eradicate,” Suhr said. “Colder winters are effective at diminishing over-wintering populations.”

In a 2011 paper, University of Vermont researcher Vern Grubinger stated that climate change would likely cause pests used to ravaging crops in the southern part of the country to migrate north.

“Pests that overwinter here, such as the European corn borer, flea beetle and tarnished plant bug could become more abundant if milder winters encourage their survival,” Grubinger wrote.

Grubinger’s research on Vermont agriculture supports what farmers and sugarers have reported. For example, Grubinger stated that the frost-free growing season in the Northeast is eight days longer than it was a century ago, that the number of extreme rainfall events has increased by three to five per year, and that the maple sugaring season begins eight days earlier and ends 11 days later than it did in 1970.

Suhr said Champlain Orchards will continue to make changes to its planting schedules and other practices as the climate continues to change.

“This is a slow progression, but this is very much long-term,” he said. “It’s our obligation that our farm is growing viable food for the future operators and future consumers.”

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