“A dry year you worry, a wet year you starve,” goes the cheery old Vermont saying, and it’s worse lately. These are stressful times for farmers, with the anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene a reminder that the placid stream beside your field could someday leap its banks and sweep that field away.
The Northeast has seen a 71% increase in heavy precipitation events over recent decades, alternating with droughts. In 2019, excess spring rains, following on a wet fall and snowy winter, lead to delayed planting. Corn should be knee high by the fourth of July, but this year, in many places, it was more like ankle high, if it had gotten planted at all. With soup-like spring soils becoming the new normal, although we have more frost-free days than we used to, the growing season for many farmers is actually shorter.
And weirder. This spring was cool as well as wet, plants were slow to start growing, and in many places, fruits and berries ripened two weeks to a month later than normal.
Soupy springs often lead into hot dry summers. Knee-high corn and other more mature plants are in a position to benefit from hot sun, but young, tender plants do better with cooler weather. Farmers can plant shorter-season crops to compensate, but these may be less productive. A switch from annual crops, like corn, to perennials, like hay, can be a strategy but increased humidity can make drying hay more difficult and affects the harvest of other crops as well.
But farmers are taking action. Researcher Alyssa White, UVM’s liason with the USDA Northeast Climate Hub, recently led a team which produced the New England Adaptation Study for Vegetable and Fruit Growers, which examines how Northeast farmers are adapting to extreme weather.
Seventy-two percent of vegetable and fruit farmers surveyed have made adaptations in response to heavy precipitation; 66% have made adaptations in response to drought. And many of their adaptations actually address the root of the problem.
A good share of the excess carbon currently in the atmosphere came from soil in the first place. Practices like keeping soil covered, keeping living roots in the ground, and reducing tillage build carbon back underground where it belongs.That in turn helps farmers. Carbon-storing techniques create well-structured soil that can absorb more water, hold it longer, and release it when conditions dry. Seventy-four percent of New England farmers surveyed were building soil health and using cover crops as a response to heavy rains. Other popular responses include using crop rotation, green manures, and no-till farming. The study notes, “Growers reported changing crops and diversifying crops, and expressed interest in species and cultivars that are more tolerant of extreme weather conditions and excess moisture. Crops that are native, moisture tolerant, and even “suitable for heavy rains” are increasingly considered by growers because these plants could thrive through challenging climate conditions. Some farmers noted that they have reduced crops that ”expose bare ground for too long, such as potatoes,” and added crops that consume a lot of water.”
Other growers are shifting to hoop houses to grow some of their crops, or using plastic mulch, which reduces the amount of water infiltrating into the soil. Plastic comes with its own set of problems; however, it may be a necessary transitional tool.
Farmers are also paying close attention to the movement of water on their land, controlling, catching, and containing it, installing rain barrels and ponds, and putting in irrigation systems. None of these are new techniques, but it’s new to need them in the Northeast.
Livestock farmers have also adapted by pasturing only animals that can walk away from high water in the flood plain. Poultry and young animals are grazed on higher ground.
All this is happening whether or not an individual farmer accepts climate science and in the absence of legal mandates. It’s an objective fact that there’s too much rain lately, that farmers can get on sod faster than they can bare ground, that a crop you don’t have to plant every year is less exposed to the vagaries of weather, and that fewer inputs of tractor fuel, agricultural chemicals, and farmer time lead to a better life and the possibility of profit. And that’s all good news for the planet.
Natural Resources Conservation Service: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/natl-home
USDA Climate Hub https://www.climatehubs.usda.gov/
UVM Adaptation Survey https://www.uvm.edu/ag-adapt/
UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture: https://www.uvm.edu/ext-sust-ag
Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Westminster West, VT since 1984, jessiehaas.com.