When farmers and growers throughout the Northeast go to work, they know they will face unpredictable weather. After all, Mark Twain’s adage, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes,” referred to New England’s erratic weather conditions. However, experts predict that global climate change means that the Northeast will see even more volatility in both the intensity and frequency of weather extremes over the coming decades.
Since excessive wet and dry conditions can lead to crop losses, it is important to understand the strategies farmers can use in the face of climate change. The University of Vermont’s Alissa White sought to do just that. She secured a grant from the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE) to uncover practical strategies farmers may use to proactively address climate change-related risks on their farms.
White reached out to more than 350 vegetable farmers and fruit growers through surveys and focus groups to learn what farmers were currently doing and how they were planning to manage weather-related risks. She said, “The project started from a place of recognizing that farmers were already adapting and innovating in the face of the extreme weather impacts of climate change. I think they really appreciated being recognized as experts in what they do and being acknowledged for being on the front lines of climate change. Farmers are adapting to climate change in many different ways, and there are a lot of successful strategies being used within the farming community that we can learn from.”
Her research revealed that the majority of farmers she reached were already using strategies to manage their farms to adapt to extreme weather conditions. More than 60% said they used cover crops and soil health improvements to mitigate risks associated with both heavy precipitation and drought. In particular, cover cropping—used by 88% of farmers in the study—was named as an effective strategy to safeguard vegetable and fruit crops from erratic weather events.
White’s research results have important environmental and social implications. The practices farmers are using protect soil and water quality and provide additional environmental benefits. White also recognized that farmers appreciated discussions with other farmers about climate change. She said, “…farmers thanked us for bringing up climate-impacts because no one else was talking about it.” White found that farmers rely on farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchanges as the primary ways they learn about these practices and noted that farmer networks are critical for continued learning and peer support. Results of White’s project are available at https://projects.sare.org/sare_project/gne17-163/.
Based on what she learned, White advises farmers and gardeners to plan for both wet and dry conditions. She said, “These weather extremes are happening more frequently and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Invest in soil health—it will support your capacity to deal with both extremes. Keep the ground covered, with roots or mulch or cover crops, to limit erosion during heavy rain events and reduce evaporation during drought. If you can plan it into your landscape, [try to] slow and catch water from heavy rain events—this will limit the damage it does and maybe you’ll be able to store it for when you need it during times of drought.”
SARE has published several books and bulletins on successful farming strategies that may be used in the face of climate change, including the bulletins, “Cultivating Climate Resilience on Farms and Ranches” and “Smart Water Use on Your Farm or Ranch.” Both highlight SARE-funded research on practices like conservation tillage, cover crops, composting and crop rotations. SARE’s popular books, “Building Soils for Better Crops 3rd Edition” and “Managing Cover Crops Profitably,” provide practical information on ecological soil management and commonly used cover crops. They can be found at www.sare.org/resources.
In addition, a new interactive online cover crop selection tool is now available to support decision-making around cover crops; find it at http://covercrop.tools.
Debra Heleba is the regional communications specialist at Northeast SARE. Funded by the USDA, Northeast SARE offers competitive grants and sustainable agriculture education to address key issues affecting the sustainability of agriculture throughout our region. For more information, visit www.northeastsare.org.