“There is no more normal”: How farmers in New England are responding to a changing climate
The nature of farming has fundamentally changed for farmers across the U.S. With changing climates, farmers are rethinking what it means for a growing season to be “normal.” As one Western Massachusetts farmer put it, “There is no more normal growing season.” This conversation sparked questions for many of our New England team members. How do we help farmers adapt to the variability we are seeing now? How can we create spaces for New England farmers to learn and help one another?
Since our founding, AFT has been committed to conserving the land and keeping farmers farming. To continue this mission, we need to be able to be responsive and adaptable to the changing needs of the farming community. To do this, our team in New England has piloted a series of listening sessions across Massachusetts where farmers can come together and share their struggles, find opportunities for a cross-pollination of ideas, and ultimately create space for farmers to tap into the communal wisdom that has always been a fundamental part of agriculture. We are calling this listening session the No More Normal roundtables.
I attended one of these “No More Normal” conversations with farmers in Southeast Massachusetts, not far from my home in Rhode Island. It was hosted by Wards Berry Farm, a prolific farm in the region stewarded by Jim Ward, who for the last 20 years has been aggressively rebuilding his soils after seeing how conventional tilling led to degradation and yield losses. Jim shared that climate change has drastically affected his ability to grow peaches, with unpredictable warm spells and cold snaps causing him to lose his entire crop this year. Jim was joined by ten other southeast Massachusetts farmers who all shared the same sentiment about unpredictable weather causing extreme stress on their operations.
Many also shared that the increasingly erratic rate of rainfall over the past two years has left many of them scrabbling to adapt. In 2020, Massachusetts experienced an extremely wet summer, which caused many farmers to lose crops and re-strategize the layout of their crops to avoid flooding. However, in 2021, just one season later, they were hit with a drought. All the planning and strategy that farmers put into their bed layouts went to waste, with one farmer sharing that whole fields and acres of crops just didn’t get water because it was needed elsewhere.
Water was a common theme across both the western and southeast Massachusetts regional roundtables. While western Massachusetts farmers were considering abandoning their driest fields to reduce their drought loss risks, in southeastern Massachusetts, farmers’ experiences of drought were refracted through two additional and interrelated pressures they face: deer and development pressure. With far scarcer available land, smaller parcels, and higher prices, farmers in the southeast region are less likely to own their land, have stable tenure, or farm contiguous parcels than their western counterparts, so investments in deer fencing and irrigation systems are more difficult to make. In dry years, when forest and meadow forage growth slow, deer seek out crops as a supplemental source of moisture and food; both the unchecked growth of the deer population in eastern Massachusetts (more than twice the population density than in western Massachusetts) and the reduction in their habitat resulting from development exacerbates this problem and leads to devastating crop losses in drought years. One farmer even lost an entire field of potatoes to deer, which she thought would be a safe crop to plant in an unfenced area. But the deer, desperate for food and water, dug up and ate every single potato. While every farmer attending shared their own unique sets of challenges, many heads nodded in solidarity with these anecdotes.
Also in the audience that day were service providers, who were able to share information and funding opportunities to potentially mitigate some of these struggles, but they were also able to listen to what farmers in the state need to be successful. Creating spaces for farmers and farm advisors to problem solve together is an essential step towards building a resilient agricultural future for New England.
As the formal roundtable ended that day, the conversation between farmers continued, with many exchanging phone numbers and scheduling time to visit each other’s operations. This community building has become a key strategy within our work in New England. New England farmers learn from one another, and the more opportunities we can create for that to happen, the better. Last month, our Climate and Agriculture team launched a Farmer Led Innovation program, through which farmers across New England can trial strategies for organic tillage reduction in a peer support format, while also receiving a financial innovation award to offset the cost of trying something new.
In Connecticut, we’re currently accepting applications for a farmer-to-farmer soil health management planning cohort, which will provide a similar learning format and a stipend to support farmers’ time investments. There are more No More Normal conversations on the horizon, which will, in addition to providing farmers with peer-to-peer support, also help to inform our work in the region.
As we all continue to experience the impacts of our changing climate, listening to and supporting those in our community who are at the frontlines of these changes is critical to our collective resilience. Farmers are early adaptors by necessity, and often fundamental innovators in a resilient future. As both Wendell Berry and Rudolph Steiner have described, agriculture shapes culture; the patterns of a larger society are often set by the rhythms and practices of its agrarian foundation. Climate change is no different—how our agrarian community responds and adapts will help inform the rest of our society’s approach to adaptation, to the benefit of all of us.
If you’re interested in getting involved with our No More Normal conversations or want to bring them to your community, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.