Climate change is the greatest threat to Vermont agriculture, Gov. Peter Shumlin told participants at the annual Vermont National Organic Farmers Association conference at the University of Vermont on Saturday.

By Audrey Clark

Gov. Peter Shumlin fingered climate change as the greatest threat to Vermont agriculture at the Vermont Northeast Organic Farmers Association conference on Saturday. Shumlin addressed a packed ballroom of farmers at the University of Vermont.

 Temperature anomoly 2000-2009,  Image courtesy of Victor Korniyenko
Temperature anomaly 2000-2009 and 1950-1980.
Image courtesy of Victor Korniyenko

“We’ve got some challenges and we’re not going to deny them,” said Shumlin. “The difference between Vermont and the rest of the country is that we understand the biggest threat to the work that you’re doing is climate change.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. Peter Welch and Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross also spoke to the lunchtime crowd. While the conference was not focused on climate change, it was a recurring theme.

Sen. Leahy echoed the governor’s concern.

“The agriculture industry hopes that 2013 will bring calmer weather patterns. But I think they’re becoming the new normal,” said Leahy. “I think we have to adapt. We as a nation and the rest of the world have got to face up to the fact that climate change is real and that we have something to do with that. And we ought to show responsibility as a people, both in this country and around the world.”

Shumlin mentioned an invasive fruit fly, a pest that was discovered in Vermont in 2011, as an example of the challenges farmers now face.

“It’s got a cutting nose, kinda like mine, and it cuts into the green fruit, lays its eggs in the green fruit, in the blueberry, and as the fruit ripens, it does its breeding thing and you open up the blueberry and it’s nothing but a soggy mass of, uh, reproduction.”

Though the crowd laughed at Shumlin’s portrayal, pests like the spotted-wing drosophila (Drosophila suzukii) are a serious threat to crops. Scientists are concerned that invasive pests like these will have more time to reproduce and wreak havoc as winters gets shorter and warmer. (Incidentally, it’s not the nose, but part of the female’s reproductive anatomy that saws into the fruit.)

Among other concerns that farmers have about climate change are flooding and drought.

Becky Maden, a farmer at the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington said she is “constantly panicking about climate change.”

Maden spoke at a session summarizing the science of climate change, solutions and farmers’ experiences. The conference also featured a daylong series of workshops on building farm resilience to climate change.

Carol Adair, an assistant professor of climate change and adaptation at UVM, spoke about the climate farmers can expect in 2050. She said Vermont will warm 3 degrees to 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The best hope is that Vermont in 2050 will have a climate like that of Pennsylvania. At worst, it will be like that of West Virginia. The worst-case scenario, based on current greenhouse gas emissions, is more likely.

Adair said farmers will have to juggle both droughts and extreme storms. Warm air holds more water vapor, which means it takes longer for water to build up in the air, but when the water is released, there’s more of it. That means storms will be less frequent but more intense. Between 1958 and 2007, there was a 67 percent increase in heavy precipitation in the Northeast. Most of the precipitation will fall in the winter as rain.

On the upside, the growing season in the region is increasing by 3.7 days per decade. And because the ocean is still absorbing heat, Adair said we’re seeing less warming now than we will in the future.

Although it’s not clear if the frequency of tropical storms and hurricanes is increasing, Adair said that it is abundantly clear that the power of those storms has intensified.

Farmers like Maden can attest to that. Her farm flooded during Tropical Storm Irene and lost thousands of dollars in equipment and crops. She also said her relationships with her customers and employees suffered because of the loss of harvests. Maden said her farm is already adapting to climate change. They’ve moved critical infrastructure, like a cooler, out of the path of floods.

They also acquired the land that formerly housed Intervale Compost. That land did not flood during Tropical Storm Irene and Maden and her co-workers are hoping the plot will provide some financial stability if other areas do flood. She would never have considered farming that land prior to Irene because the soil is heavily compacted and in need of remediation. Now, what was formerly a wasteland is looking like a lifeboat, she says.

What farmers can do

At the conference, Maden asked scientists to help farmers learn how to respond to climate change. Ernesto Mendez, an associate professor of plant and soil science at UVM, responded by asking what farmers needed to know. What followed was a creative brainstorming session on farmers’ climate change concerns:

• Whether it is worth building berms and levees to protect farm fields from flooding.
• What kind of new flood patterns to expect, both in terms of timing and location.
• How to use stream gauges to know when flooding will hit.
• What to plant along streams to reduce flooding and pollution.
• How to inexpensively and effectively test soil for contamination before and after flooding.
• Which crops can tolerate “wet feet” as well as extended droughts.
• Which invasive pests are on their way to Vermont and how to handle them.

Other considerations are social, like working with neighbors to reduce pollution from upstream sources during floods, or sharing resources during emergencies.

Maden and her fellow farmers are also looking for ways to reduce their effect on the climate. Intervale Community Farm recently had an energy audit, which she says was critical in reducing their use of propane to heat the greenhouse in the winter. Prior to the audit, she hadn’t considered heating the greenhouse to be a major energy sink. It turned out to be their greatest.

“We had a little science behind it and it changed everything,” she said.

Vern Grubinger, a professor at UVM agricultural extension, said there are ways farmers can reduce emissions — and make a living.

“As far as Vermont goes, we’re in a pretty nice place because we won’t be underwater,” he joked. “We have a greater responsibility to think harder and do more.”

Grubinger said he often comes away from climate change talks “feeling depressed and overwhelmed.” Many people, he said, understand the impact of climate change but aren’t motivated to take action. He believes the way to help people to adapt is to avoid scare tactics and “trying to ram the whole thing down their throats.”

Grubinger suggests that farmers “find the things that will resonate” with others. In this way, farmers can get the support of people who want to shop at the farmer’s market, or buy cruelty-free products. Farmers themselves can take action against climate change, he said, while also strengthening their farms.

For example, Grubinger said rotating crops reduces the need for expensive fertilization and tilling, both of which release of carbon into the atmosphere. Expanding markets to local schools is good for the farmer’s wallet, good for child nutrition, and good for the climate. Switching to value-added products, like artisanal cheese, reduces the number of cows a dairy farmer raises — thereby reducing methane emissions.

In fact, Ross, the secretary of Agriculture, said that Vermont is now one of the top regions in the world for artisanal cheese.

“You sell cheese to France now,” he said. “Think about that.”

Likewise, Welch spoke in favor of locally grown food.

“If you don’t have to transport your crop 1,500 miles, just think of what that does in saved transportation costs, not to mention reducing your carbon footprint,” he said.

But Grubinger warned, little research has been done to confirm whether things that are good for, say, child nutrition or animal welfare are also good for the climate. Nonetheless, he is confident that when people take action on issues that matter it has a rippling effect.

Indeed, Ross spoke to the lunchtime crowd about working together as a community, across divisions of belief and practice. He said organic farmers have to work with conventional farmers, dairy with non-dairy farmers, value-added manufacturers with raw producers.

“We cannot afford to let those divisions divide us,” said Ross. “We need everybody in the game in the state of Vermont if we’re going to advance agriculture and support the communities that we need and want.”

Ross did not mention climate change during his speech; he identified water quality as the greatest threat to Vermont agriculture.

All of the speakers expressed pride in Vermont’s agricultural community.

Ross enumerated the ways Vermont is a leader in agriculture: maple syrup, dairy, direct marketing, farm-to-school, farm-to-institution, food hubs, biodigesting, farmland conservation, and maintaining a working landscape.

“It’s what makes living in Vermont wonderful,” Ross affirmed.

“I know that the country considers Vermont a leader in these issues,” said Leahy.

Shumlin also gave farmers a pat on the back.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. With you we’ll get it done,” said Shumlin at the close of his speech. “I’m proud to be your governor. I’m more proud of the work you’re doing to ensure that our ag future is a bright one and that we’re showing the rest of the country how food ought to be eaten, grown, and how it results in a healthy life. Best quality of life in the country. You’re the reason. Keep it up.”

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