Column: Weather tests farmers’ resiliency, flexibility

Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 25, 2017, by Claire Morenon.

Do you think that talking about the weather is a sign that a conversation has stalled? Well, not for farmers, it isn’t!

Farmers watch the skies (and the radar) closely every day, and have to make major, on-the-fly adjustments to their daily work and their seasonal crop plans to accommodate New England’s famously changeable weather patterns. Crops and farm businesses live and die by the weather — but its impacts might not always be what you would think.

The first major harvest of the year is maple syrup, which is usually produced between late February and early April. Perhaps more than any other farmers, sugar makers are beholden to the weather, because sap flows when fluctuations in temperature lead to pressure changes in the trees. The ideal conditions for sap flow are nights that fall below freezing and days that rise above it, and when the sap is flowing, sugar makers are working! Sap is perishable, so they work around the clock to haul it in and boil it into shelf-stable syrup.

A balmy spell in late January, and another in mid-February, got sugaring season started early this year, and farmers worried that the early warmth might result in a severely curtailed season. But temperatures returned to normal for the season, and it turned into an excellent maple year. This extended, odd season had a happy ending for sugar makers and maple syrup lovers alike, but in the long term it’s part of a pattern of climate instability and warming that threatens the maple industry in the Northeast.

Some odd weather patterns have much more immediately damaging effects. Last summer and fall, the big weather story was the historic drought that spread across the Northeast. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 60 percent of the state was at least “abnormally dry” in early June, and by mid-September, over 50 percent of the state was in an “extreme drought.”

We heard from dairy and livestock farmers who were hit especially hard by the drought conditions, because most of their hay and other livestock feed is grown on land that isn’t reachable by irrigation. That usually works out fine for those relatively drought-resistant crops, but the conditions this past year meant that many dairy and livestock farmers had to buy in hay and other animal feed that they normally would have grown themselves, which increased their costs enormously. Fruit and vegetable farms, especially smaller operations with less infrastructure and those with far-flung fields, saw serious losses. Even farmers with adequate irrigation paid for the drought, as farm crews struggled to move and manage irrigation equipment alongside the regular work of planting, weeding, and harvesting.

The drought posed a real hardship for local farms —and still, farmers’ markets, farm stands, and grocery stores were full of local food. It’s a testament to the resilience of the diverse crop plans of many of the farms in our region: when some crops struggle, others thrive, and farms that grow a variety of products are better prepared to absorb losses.

Almost every year brings weather events that drastically change the course of the growing season for a segment of farmers. Sometimes these are slow-moving events that affect everyone, like the drought. Sometimes, it’s a single disaster like Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, which flooded the fertile fields along the Connecticut River and its tributaries and rendered many farms’ plantings unfit for harvest. And sometimes specific crops are affected, like the tomato crop losses due to late blight in 2010, or the year without peaches because of a February cold snap in 2016. Instability will become more common as climate change leads to more extreme weather patterns, which will make the work of local farmers even more challenging and financially risky.

Farming has always been a weather-dependent business — local farmers make their plans and do their work despite unknowable future conditions, and they are flexible, resilient, and hard-working in the face of weather-related challenges. The most important thing that we, the community that supports local farmers, can do is reflect that flexibility and resilience back at them.

Eating locally involves getting more in touch with the seasons, which also means being adaptable in response to the weather. Keep showing up at your farmers’ market or favorite farm stand, even if you’ve heard that it’s a tough growing season. Ask them what’s growing well, bring some of it home, and enjoy it!

Claire Morenon is communications manager at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture of South Deerfield.