Op/Ed

Climate Matters: Farmers must deal with reality

WILL STEVENS

Today we start a new series of columns by local observers and thinkers that aims to give readers a variety of views on climate from many voices in our community. The columns will describe what’s happening here in Addison County, offer insights into issues like climate justice, and sometimes offer actions people can take right here close to home. Our first writer is Will Stevens of Shoreham, a successful organic vegetable farmer and former state representative and selectboard member.

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My wife Judy and I have been growing organic vegetables commercially since 1981 and our daughter Pauline is in the process of taking over the operation in Shoreham. Having grown up here, Pauline is aware of the changes climate change has brought to our farm operation and management approach. While 40 years is nothing in terms of climate science, it has been long enough to allow me to create a hyper-local database of weather information, notice changes in weather patterns, and use that data to drive our decisions.

Seasonal rhythms have definitely changed over the years. In general, what was once fairly predictable has become wildly unstable as production seasons now seem to swing between extremes of hot or cold, wet or dry, overly cloudy or oppressively sunny — or all of the above, packed into one year! Some years our fields have been dry enough to harrow in March, but not until mid-May in others. We had an April without a frost and have seen eight inches of rain in July. We’ve enlarged our irrigation pond twice and in spite of that still have years where we completely drain it because of drought.

The nature of rainfall itself has also changed. A close look at our records over the last couple of decades shows that most of the precipitation incidents we received came in the form of severe events such as thunderstorms or microbursts. This matters because intense downpours don’t soak into the ground the way gentle showers do, and the result is often runoff and, in extreme cases, erosion. In 2011, rainfall from Tropical Storm Irene amounted to about half of what we’d already received for the entire month of August, and that was on top of the nearly 20 inches of rain we’d already gotten since April of that year. We discovered that the rich glacial deposits of loamy soils that brought us to Shoreham from Monkton in 1984 were not deep, and were in fact sitting on top of Champlain Valley clay, which is pretty impervious to water when saturated.

I’ve also noticed longer seasons. From 1985 to 1994, half of our first fall frosts came in September and half in October. In the 27 years since, the only September frost we’ve had was in 2020, and many recent ones have come in the third week of October.

Pests that simply weren’t here in the early ’80s have become commonplace in Vermont. Swede midge, leek moth, spotted cucumber beetle, spotted wing drosophila, Japanese beetle, marmorated stink bug and spotted lanternfly, are but a few. Some suggest that their appearance may not be directly linked to climate change, but that debate is less important to me than the fact that their existence makes overall management of the farm more complex and expensive: they’re here now, and we need to adjust. The bottom line for me is that the “New Normal” simply means that there is no “normal!” Interpreting nature’s signals has become much more difficult.

In 2011, with all the rain and saturated soils, we found ourselves at an inflection point. Before then, we thought we had a good production system, but all that standing water made us reconsider. The next year we experimented with a raised-bed system, in which the seedbed is six or more inches above the wheel tracks. That way, plant roots are elevated somewhat from any standing water that might result from extreme precipitation or wet years. After several seasons of trial and error, it was clear that this method was more than a form of insurance, so we invested in several pieces of equipment that would help us do the job more efficiently. It was a capital-intensive decision that we hadn’t anticipated making and involved a big learning curve, but it was clear that we had to do it, all in the name of simply staying in business!

While climate change has affected our production approach, our production approach can also microscopically affect climate change, and it is that latter thought that keeps me going. Accepting that change is upon us (as it always has been) means our response to change must be as integrative and forward-looking as possible. It must also be every as bit nimble as the conditions are unpredictable. This involves what I call “brush-fire management,” which essentially involves stamping out situational “fires” as they pop up. Planning in the off-season provides a template for planting and production schedules, and is an important tool to fall back on when unanticipated realities, like a week of rain, prevent us from following the script.

Most of the plants and food we produce (from spring bedding plants to fall storage crops) are used within about 15 miles of our farm. This outcome aligns with our management objectives and personal interests. Our relatively short “food miles” model has a lighter environmental impact, and provides additional community benefits such as greater food security and resiliency, closer relations between consumer and producer, and productive working lands. I think that these are compelling, if quiet, reasons for combatting climate change.

I personally believe centuries of human activity has contributed to climate change, but even if I didn’t, I would still need to take necessary actions to continue farming. Debating the existence and/or causes of climate change is a red herring for me, because it distracts from dealing with what is happening in real time, right before my eyes. I prefer instead to devote my energy to figuring out suitable farm-management responses that address what Mother Nature is throwing at us while simultaneously taking into account the long-term benefits those decisions will have on Mother Earth. In order for us to continue to fill the hyper-local niche that our farm occupies, it is necessary to be as flexible and open-minded as possible to react to and prepare for the extremes that climate change confronts us with. Hopefully, our daughter’s weather records in the decades to come will show a shift back to normality.

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