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July 26, 2021

CT farmers are finding there’s no easy way to deal with climate extremes

Photo | WILLIE DELLACAMERA Fierce storms followed by Tropical Storm Elsa flooded the fields at Cecarelli Farm in North Branford and ruined the corn crop.

Heading into Memorial Day weekend, Jamie Jones was sweating it.

“Here I am in late May and I’m like – if we don’t get rain either tomorrow afternoon or over the weekend or on Friday, come post Memorial Day we’re gonna be out carrying buckets of water to water our baby Christmas trees just to keep them alive. They’re already starting to droop,” he said on yet another hot, dry, near-cloudless day.

As Jones, who is the sixth generation owner of the family’s Shelton farm, navigated his truck around some 500 acres of those trees and fields of pumpkins, strawberries and blueberries — as well as the grapes he makes into wine — he pointed to his drainage swales.

The swales, which direct water into holding ponds to keep it from pooling on fields and ruining crops, are one of the many adjustments Jones has made to deal with the effects of climate change.

“Of course, now it seems crazy because all I want to do is rain dances,” he said on that hot May afternoon.

Six weeks later – whatever rain dances he did apparently worked.

“Too well,” he said a month later, his tone exasperated.

Eight inches of rain in 10 days, followed by torrential downpours and violent thunderstorms that culminated in Tropical Storm Elsa on July 9, left Jones with a shortened “mushed out” strawberry season, his more durable blueberry plants “just dripping blue,” and a tractor nearly halfway up its tires in mud.

“In the middle of July to get a tractor stuck in a field – it’s somewhat unheard of,” Jones said.

Welcome to climate change on a Connecticut farm.

Jones is hardly alone, however. Farmers around the state are coping with extreme weather, multiple devastating outcomes of climate change and the unpredictability of the future. They are learning the hard way that anticipating and preparing for climate change impacts is often a crapshoot. On top of that, they usually have little but their own ingenuity to fall back on.

“Climate change, global warming, whatever you want to call it. I call it drastic weather,” said Willie DellaCamera, owner of Cecarelli Farm in North Branford.

He tried to prepare this year, running miles of subsurface drip irrigation to get his fields through dry spells like the one in May. And between his vegetable rows, where the ground is already shielded in plastic, he added large swaths of cover crops to help absorb excess water.

It was no match for early July.

More than five inches of rain from Elsa plus more than an inch the day before left his fields so deep in water it lifted the black plastic, exposing plant roots. Pummeling rain splashed mud all over the vegetables.

“It devastated and destroyed everything here,” DellaCamera said. “When you pull tomatoes off there are weathering cracks and check marks. They’re unsellable pieces now.”

Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower have mildew. Basil is overrun with Japanese beetles and downy mildew. “It’s shot,” he said.

Daren Hall, owner of George Hall Farm in Simsbury, had also gone the irrigation route – installing and testing about four acres worth of lines just days before the week of storms that preceded Elsa.

“Now of course I won’t need it,” he joked, not sounding very amused.

He figures disease is coming – and as a certified organic grower there’s not much he can do but wait.

Looking seasonally or taking averages, Connecticut’s rainfall and temperature numbers look pretty normal – but that’s deceptive, according to experts.

“It’s not the average that’s important,” said Rich Cowles, agricultural scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station who has his own small farm, so he sees climate change play out real-time. “It’s the variation that will drive everyone crazy.”

The stress from an average 1.5 F degree increase may seem minor. But if the high end of that average means it’s 95 degrees-plus and never goes below 75 degrees at night that’s much harsher than what has been considered normal in past years, he said. “When you have stress that goes too far and things snap, then you have major problems.”

It can also trigger compounding impacts. Droughts end up being more of a problem as time passes. The hotter it gets, the faster land and plants will dry out. Wind will also cause faster drying.

Having enough water can only help up to a point. Extended periods of 90-plus degree temperatures during the day or high 70s at night can cause flowers and small fruits to fall off plants, harming production, said Shuresh Ghimire, a vegetable specialist with UConn Extension, a program that provides hands-on support to farmers.

He said you’d think the warmer temperatures would be beneficial in a climate like Connecticut’s by extending the growing season, but that’s not the case.

“What is detrimental is these extreme couple of days or weeks,” he said. “The temperature is impacting pollination and fruit set, even in warm season crops, and the bolting of cool season brassicas and lettuce.”

“It’s not about one big storm or one bad drought,” agreed Rachel Schattman, an assistant professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine. “It’s about how many years in a row a business can sustain losses.”

To help farmers prepare for and work through climate change-related issues, Schattman has started a Climate Adaptation Fellowship as part of the Agroecology Lab she runs. It’s a peer-to-peer design that pairs farmers with advisors. From Connecticut, Jamie Jones is participating with Rich Cowles from the Experiment Station within the vegetable and small fruit group – the first group to start work. They are now half-way through the year-long effort.

It’s too early for results, but Schattman is drawing on her own experience as a farmer and her work at the extension service in Vermont, where she’s learned how quickly conditions can shift and cause problems when climate change is involved.

A cascade of shifting problems
In addition to weather extremes that impact the growing season, Connecticut farmers face are also grappling with crop diseases, pests, and animals – some of which now thrive more easily due to the change in climate.

Even before the July storms, Ghimire was seeing more of everything: more pests over-wintering; striped cucumber beetles arriving weeks early; more cutworms and squash spine borer; more reports of deer and other animals surviving the warmer winters and eating just about anything – on farms and home gardens.

Ghimire handles a lot of the troubleshooting and technical advice for commercial vegetable growers. There is other help available — the USDA, through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station are both resources — and the state Department of Agriculture helps get growers to the right assistance. But farmers have to ask for help.

The Governor’s Council on Climate Change Phase 1 Report released in January did include a section on agriculture and soils, but its recommendations only included a couple of broad statements on soil health.

This summer Ghimire has kept an especially careful eye on the downy mildew disease that affects cucurbits, such as squashes and cucumbers. The disease over-winters south of here and moves north during the summer.

“For the third time since we started tracking it, it’s in New Jersey – so early,” he said in May. “It would normally be lower, like in Maryland, if we were expecting it in late August. We’re going to get it in mid-July.”

And indeed – in the immediate aftermath of the week of storms culminating in Elsa, he updated via email that cucurbit downy mildew had been found in a commercial planting on Long Island, south of Clinton, Conn. – the earliest detection on LI since 2006.

The standing water and prolonged wetness on plants are also bringing a host of other diseases, he said.

Pests are also finding it easier to over-winter. And those with short reproduction cycles, such as spotted wing drosophila – a fruit fly that has particularly hurt berry growers  in Connecticut – can manage two cycles as the growing season lengthens, noted Schattman from Maine.

She also pointed to research by the University of Massachusetts that said the move toward growing in structures, such as plastic-covered tunnels, may be making pests and diseases worse.

“We’re providing these little reservoirs for disease and insects that overwinter in the soil this lovely little protective environment,” she said. “Some of these diseases that used to get killed off in the winter and then wouldn’t be a problem until later in the summer … suddenly they’re already here in the spring.”

But what’s causing the most anxiety is the spotted lanternfly, now spotted for a fourth year in more locations. With no known means for eradicating it or any known predators, it has the potential to destroy apples, a major crop in Connecticut, grapes and other items. It’s an Asian hitchhiker invasive, and the warming climate may be helping it and other invasive insects and plants flourish in ways they never have before.

Climate change impacts being felt elsewhere are also creating agricultural problems here. The climate-related fires on the west coast have caused a run on seed as growers try to replant, for example.

Jones said he’s having trouble getting Christmas tree transplants.

“The guy said we’re running out of seed because all the Christmas tree seeds are collected from trees in the wild and they haven’t made a good seed crop in probably like eight years,” Jones said. “And that is most definitely climate change-related.”

Diversify, diversify, diversify
There’s no one-size-fits all solution for how to prepare for the effects of climate change, but there are some overarching principles farmers are consistently advised to consider.

The biggest is diversification. Farmers are encouraged to plant a wider range of crops so if one fails, there will be others to take their place.

The same goes for planting different varieties of a crop – preferably ones with more weather tolerance, temperature tolerance, and that mature at different times — and a mix of perennial and annual crops.

“I think of diversity as a form of insurance,” said Schattman. “If one crop is flowering in June and you get a freak frost and all the blossoms fall off and it’s total goner, you’ve got another source of revenue for the year.”

Another big consideration is soil health. There are many ways to manage that, from the tried-and-true methods of mulching and cover-crops that allow the soil to rejuvenate for a year or two, to creating better slopes and grading, to no-till techniques.

No-till means not turning over the soil. Disturbing the soil is now believed to thwart nutrient buildup and make it harder for the soil to store carbon, a climate change mitigation benefit that many farmers are starting to embrace.

There’s a problem with the no-till method, though — it’s not instinctive.

“It’s really hard to do,” said Dina Brewster, who owns The Hickories in Ridgefield and is also the executive director of CT NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut, which has been advocating for no-till methods. “It’s learning a new way of farming – put away your plow and put away your roto-tiller.”

She said climate change solutions need to be baked into everything farmers do. For her that means including insects, birds and all the other aspects of her farm in her efforts.

“Pollinators are part of my farm crew and beneficial insects are part of my farm crew and soil health is part of my farm crew,” she said.

And if you want to see how healthy your soil is – look at it through a microscope. CT NOFA is doing just that with a few farms already trying the no-till method.

Monique Bosch, who specializes in soil health, is taking her computer and a microscope right to the fields so farmers can see the good critters in it – magnified 400 times.

“One application of chemical fertilizer can kill half the life in your soil,” she’s quick to point out. Pesticides are even worse.

The idea is to make sure there’s plenty of life in the soil so the plants have nutrition. Between that and not tilling, the soil will both better hold water during drought and absorb water in a storm.

Farmers are also urged to embrace water management methods such as irrigation, though, as of the last farm census by the USDA in 2017, fewer than 20% of the state’s 5,521 farms were irrigated.

Season extension, which means farmers can grow crops for longer periods of time, is also a popular practice. Some farmers put down black plastic in their fields, which  warms the ground so planting can start earlier in the spring and last longer into the fall. Because of climate change, however, black plastic can sometimes make the ground too hot in the summer, necessitating a switch to white plastic.

Looking to the future – and past – for climate solutions 
Oakridge Dairy in Ellington – a 130-year-old family operation now in its fifth generation of owners – has embraced high-tech modernizations to deal with climate change in the service of its 3,100 cows.

“Our industry is talking – go to any conference of any kind in dairy – climate change, sustainability, carbon footprint is all you hear,” said CEO Seth Bahler. “We want to be part of the solution.”

“We built the farm of the future,” he said.

It includes a cross-ventilated barn that can hold the whole herd. It has 220 fans to help keep it cool, curtains that provide warmth, and sprinklers. They will be installing a methane digester to make natural gas to put back into the pipeline.

When storms hit the week before Elsa and the power went out overnight, backup generators kicked in. The farm got five inches of rain and extreme winds.

“The guys inside didn’t even notice,” Bahler said. “Things will get more extreme, but technology will get better.”

Jonathan James-Perry is looking to the past, not the future, to deal with climate change in agriculture. He’s an Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal council member from Martha’s Vineyard, who lives in Rhode Island and works as a cultural instructor there as well as for the Mashantucket Pequot tribe in Connecticut.

The garden he’s started for the Pequots employs centuries old seed-saving and farming techniques. The seeds are saved from crops that have adapted over the centuries to changing regional conditions.

“Our corn varieties are tolerant of the weather patterns, are tolerant of the seas – selected and protected,” he said. 

The Pequot garden has Narragansett White Cap corn – a 1,000-year-old variety – and heritage seeds for Nipmuc squash, cranberry beans, field melons and a traditional variety of sunflowers.

The brutal week of rain proved no problem. The corn is deep rooting, planted in mounds that push the roots even deeper.

“The environmental changes we’re experiencing now – would not be that shocking to my ancestors,” James-Perry said. “Maybe the speed (of climate change) would be upsetting – but with a memory of 10,000 years – not that surprising. The words we have are older than that. Our songs are older than that. What we grow is older than that.”

Jones, the Shelton farmer, has tried everything he can think of to adapt.

He learned a harsh climate change lesson four or five years ago when, figuring that Connecticut getting warmer meant he might be able to grow new grape varieties, he planted some finicky Merlot.

Three years in, as they were getting established, mid-February temperatures dropped below zero. He lost 80% of the grapes.

“And next spring you’re looking at all these dead vines and you’re like ‘do I try this again?’” Jones asks rhetorically.

His answer – Cayuga White grapes, developed at Cornell, where the Merlot grapes once were. The grapes were still small when this year’s heavy rains hit, so they should be okay – unless there’s a replay of the deluge late in the season. That could mean trouble.

Among Jones’ current practices is planting a cover crop of winter rye and, when that comes down, planting pumpkins right on top – providing them with both mulch and protection. He places rings of mulch around the Christmas trees and a hard fescue between them that needs little water and can prevent erosion.

He has early, mid and late season berries, just in case one of the plantings fail. He’s graded fields so water will gently flow down. His farm ponds can be fitted with extra piping to handle higher water levels if needed.

But there’s still plenty of frustration. “You kind of sign up for it,” Jones said. “Weather has always been a challenge – from dry to wet. You just don’t know. It just doesn’t seem to have that happy medium.”

Schattman said farmers can prepare to a certain extent.

“We can put in our cover crops and build up our soil organic matter and make it better drained and that will help us deal with a certain number of these heavy rainfalls,” she said. “But when the river breaks its banks – no amount of cover cropping is going to help you keep that bank in place.”

While she has seen farmers in the region get out of the business because the uncertainty and risk have become too frustrating, she hasn’t seen them give up on specific crops – yet. She said farmers really need to start thinking in longer time horizons, not just year-to-year.

“I think they’re going to have to ask themselves on a regular basis – ‘knowing what I know about how the environment is changing – Is this still worth the risk?’”

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