Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Farm Strategies to Adapt to Climate Change

By Bill Duesing

In the face of increasingly disturbing news about the challenges farmers face due to climate change, there is encouraging news. According to Kip Kolesinskas, Consulting Conservation Scientist for the American Farmland Trust, there are strategies farmers can use to adapt to the flooding, drought, heat stress, insect invasions, less reliable weather and super weeds that are just some of the increasing challenges that farmers are and will be facing with the changing climate.

On a delightful but very dry first evening of autumn, CT NOFA and its partners presented a workshop at Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge on ways farmers can address some of these challenges.

Massaro Community Farm was established in 2008 with a mission to "Keep Farming, Feed People and Build Community."  A group of dedicated citizens convinced the town that farming would be a better and more appropriate use of this former dairy farm than sports fields would be. The Massaro family donated the 57 acre farm to the town in 2007. Now in its sixth year with a farm manager, the farm is certified organic and provides vegetables for a 175-member Community Supported Agriculture program, sells at a New Haven farmers market and to a number of restaurants. The farm also donates at least 10 percent of its produce to those in need in Woodbridge, New Haven and other nearby towns. In just six years, this program has provided almost 15 tons of healthy organic food to organizations that feed hungry people.
At the workshop, Kolesinskas gave a presentation on the probable effects of climate change and some of the ways they will affect farmers before participants took a tour of the strategies used at Massaro farm, led by farm manager Steve Munno.

According to Kolesinskas 2014 was the hottest year on record and 2015 looks like it will be hotter. Very warm days will get hotter, affecting crops, animals, farm workers and pick your own customers. We will see fewer very cold days, a longer freeze-free season with a later end to the growing season. Farmers will see more rain, primarily in the winter, more extreme rainfall events with longer dry periods and less predictable weather.

These changes will encourage more weeds, new pest insects, diseases and more generations of insects each year. Kolesinskas provided three levels of adaptation strategies for farmers: resistance, resilience and transformation.  That is, using management actions to resist the effects of climate change, using proactive actions to increase adaptive capacity to moderate the effects and then transitioning to a new system.  All of these strategies are likely to be necessary to insure that we can eat in the future. All the places where our food is grown are subject to the deleterious effects of climate change. Consider the drought in California and the likelihood that much of Florida's winter vegetable cropland will be under water during this century for examples.

This community farm, producing a wide variety of organically-grown food crops for the local community is a good example of the kind of transformation that is needed and is happening now.

The pictures below and their captions illustrate and explain of some of the strategies used at Massaro Farm. I've grouped them into five rough categories: Keeping the soil covered, encouraging biodiversity and ecosystem services, managing water, diversifying the farm's crops, growing environments and markets, and more aggressive plants. All of these strategies are also important for success with organic growing. 

CT NOFA's partners in this workshop were the American Farmland Trust, the University of Connecticut's Cooperative Extension System, the USDA's Risk Management Agency and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. In addition, representatives of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservations Service who provided expert guidance and funding for much of the work at this farm, were on hand. Contact the closest NRCS office to connect with their expertise and funding options, including the organic initiative.

Massaro Community Farm's Adaptation Strategies  

1. Keeping the soil covered
Growing plants protect soil from erosion while they pump carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. In healthy soil, underground organisms grab the carbon containing compounds and incorporate some of them into humus.This kind of soil is also better able to absorb water.  Avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides encourages more soil organisms which can store carbon and aerate soil.

This cover crop of field peas and oats protects the soil from erosion and builds soil health.
Grassy strips between raised beds. Steve planted a cover crop between plastic covered raised beds to protect the soil and avoid cultivation and the bare soil it would leave.  Earlier in the season these strips are mowed.
 2. Increasing biodiversity is a key strategy for organic success and adapting to climate change.  A biodiverse farm environment provides a number of ecosystem services, especially as it creates a habitat for helpful birds and insects.
Non-native invasive species were removed and native species were planted to create this hedgerow which provides a windbreak and habitat for beneficial organisms.

This large field was impassible because of non-native invasive plants.  After removing the invaders, a pollinator garden was planted, left, and a cover crop was sowed in the field to the far right.  Massaro has an apiary and a strong beekeeping education program. The pollinator crops also provide flowers now and eventually shrubs for sale.

3. Managing Water
One important goal is to keep water from eroding soil or running off the farm by encouraging it to infiltrate to recharge aquifers. 

Water flowing down this slight slope from right to left was flooding the crop field on the far left.  This constructed ditch collects and slows down the water while allowing it to flow around the growing area and move slowly into wetlands to recharge the aquifer. The farm uses wells for irrigation.
Close up of the ditch which diverts water around the field to the left.  The field no longer gets flooded and is usable earlier in the season.
A gravel pad installed on a farm road to allow machinery to pass without creating muddy areas.

Just a slight and careful grading of this farm road directs water away from growing areas and toward infiltration in the wetland.
On the advice of the NRCS, Steve changed the orientation of his beds from going up and down this slight incline to going across it in order to capture more water for his crops. Note the drip irrigation in the foreground and the white row cover toward the back protecting young brassica crops from insects.

4. Diversifying the Farm's Crops, Growing Environments and Markets
Climate change will bring more uncertainty and variability.  Growing a wider variety of crops, for a longer season, using high tunnels to protect sensitive crops such as tomatoes and to extend the growing and harvest season and having multiple options for marketing the farm's  produce all help address that uncertainty. Massaro grows over 50 kinds of vegetables. Weekly CSA shares can be adjusted depending on which crops are successful and which don't do so well.

High tunnel with a new crop of radishes for fall harvest.  At the rear are a few grafted tomatoes.  They did well and Steve may grow more of those next year.
Massaro Farm has two moveable high tunnels which provide options for growing environments and prevent the salt buildup that can happen in a fixed structure growing situation.

5. More aggressive plants
Higher levels of carbon dioxide and longer growing seasons increase the growth of some plants, including poison ivy, increase its toxicity and make herbicides and other control strategies less effective.
This field has lots of poison ivy growing in it.  It frequently can be controlled by regular mowing, but not here. Poison ivy is a native plant whose seeds are valuable bird food.