‘It’s one extreme to another’

Farmers struggle to maintain routine amid ever-changing weather

By MELINA BOURDEAU, Staff Writer, The Recorder, September 19, 2019

With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, discussion among presidential candidates and conversation about whether Hurricane Dorian was affected by climate change, the topic of climate change is one of a global scale.

Changes in climate are predicted to affect sea levels and cause extreme weather events. And while it is difficult to pinpoint when a weather event is caused by climate change, there have been and will be effects on farming.

Franklin County farmers have not only faced difficulty with crops, but some have tried to adapt to unpredictable temperatures and other difficulties posed by weather.

Farming complications

Mike Mahar of Whately’s Poplar Hill Farm and his brother, Pete, grew up on their farm of about 70 acres of corn and 100 to 120 acres of hay, and spent their childhood learning about dairy and beef farming. But Mahar said unpredictable weather has complicated the process of haying and growing corn.

“The hardest thing is that the weather is unpredictable. We watch the news and the weather, and you get a prediction, but I’m glad I’m not a weatherman,” he said with a laugh. “It’s one extreme to another — hot with no rain or rain all the time.

“When we plant corn in the spring, it can be hard to get it in the ground,” Mahar said. “It takes a while to grow hay and it can be difficult to get a first cut of hay, and when you do eventually get the second cut, it doesn’t grow because it’s hot and dry, which screws up the yield.” At Montague’s Red Fire Farm, a July microburst — a brief, downward blast of cold air in a concentrated area that creates erratic wind patterns — ripped the plastic coverings from the greenhouses and twisted the metal support arches, leaving the fruits and vegetables exposed. The farm is still raising money to fix the damage. Owner Ryan Voiland said although there is no way to prove the storm was caused by climate change, it was “the worst storm we’ve ever had.”

He added that changes in the weather have been more erratic than he’s seen in his 29 years of farming.

“If there’s a late frost or early frost in the fall, that can affect the crops,” Voiland said.

“Windstorms cause problems quickly. There have been extreme weather events historically in New England, but they are more frequent and more extreme than they used to be and there’s been an increased erratic-ness happening because of climate change.”

For further example, Voiland said 2016 was the worst drought he’s seen and in 2018, he saw the wettest year, where the farm saw 2 to 3 inches of rain per storm, drowning the fields.

The plants that are most severely affected are tree fruits, with erratic winter weather sometimes causing buds to break prematurely.

“With the trees, you have to think about the weather 10 to 15 years ahead of time,” he said. “With vegetable season, you can select a new variety or perennials. The trees have a longer cycle that will tend to be appropriate for the climate.”

Not just a plant problem

Like plants, bees are vulnerable to dramatic changes in the weather as well.

Ang Roell, a beekeeper at They Farm Bees based out of Yard Birds Farm in Montague, said the farm — which consists of 21 acres with two bee yards — is working to increase bee resilience, allowing the bees to manage without pesticides or chemical treatments and mirror the insects’ natural systems.

“In late wet springs or warm falls they’re (bees) active with no food and they feed into the winter storage and they’re using a lot of energy,” Roell explained.

Typically, Roell said, bees use one nectar source until it’s gone, but longer summers create multiple nectar sources, confusing the bees’ understanding of what is available. Oppositely, if there is a drought or short spring, the bees’ supply of nectar is insufficient to get them through the season.

During the winter, bees go into a stasis, staying in a cluster to keep warm, but when the weather goes between warm and cold, the bees have to remake the cluster, Roell continued. When the temperatures swing back and forth during the winter, the process is repeated and becomes energy-intensive for the colonies.

Secret in the soil?

When it comes to finding a way for farmers to quell the effects of climate change on their crops, Greenfield Community College professor Anthony Reiber believes the secret is in the soil.

Reiber, who teaches soil science and manages the college’s greenhouse facility, recommends avoiding nitrogen- and phosphorusbased nutrients for the soil, reducing tilling and feeding the soil with organic matter. Organic matter includes any vegetation that is rotting, which fungi and bacteria break down, and which in turn provides nutrients to the plants.

“Instead of releasing carbon, the key is to be able to hold it in the soil instead in the atmosphere,” Reiber said. “We want to think about it as soil is a thing best left untouched.”

His philosophy is that soil should be at the focal point of the issue of climate change and agriculture.

“We like to encourage organic matter in agricultural systems because it acts like a sponge and can hold onto water,” Reiber said. “It’s a risky business. Having too much or too little rainfall can be a big problem, so organic matter can act as a buffer to both of those. During drier periods, organic matter has a lot more storage capacity, and in periods of wetter weather, large pore space can add more oxygen and air into the soil.”

While there are some ways of combating varying weather, Reiber said, there is a more dire situation at hand.

“We are all looking to a dire future in agriculture,” he said. “We have to make those big-picture changes and also have the adaptability to be able to handle some of the environmental stressors.”

One of his hopes is teaching the next generation of potential farmers or farm workers through his work at GCC.

“We have the ability to practice ideas on a small scale, with the ability to fail, without dire consequences,” Reiber said. “We are teaching the ways to look to the future of sustainable agriculture here in the classrooms.”

Other possible solutions

At Poplar Hill Farm, Mahar said the farm already doesn’t till the fields.

“The plants create a cover crop and it’s killed off, which helps to hold moisture and make the soil more resilient,” he added.

Otherwise, Mahar said he and his brother try to work around the weather, but he sees few opportunities for changing climate change’s impact on farmers.

“We have to change methods to lessen the time we need good weather,” he explained. “There’s nothing you can really do. The motto is, ‘Don’t worry about the weather, what matters is controlling the things you can.’” Sarah Voiland of Red Fire Farm said the farm already works to use organic matter and cover crops, to create a buffer, but suggested that incentive programs would help other farms to do so as well.

“If we can figure out ways to make it more viable for other farmers, that would be helpful,” Sarah Voiland said. “So much of this relies on financials. It’s hard to stay viable and pay bills. It’s hard to execute good and long-term ideas. If there was a way to pay farmers to take extra time to use methods of reducing releases of carbon, adding compost, tilling less, going organic, etc…”

Ryan Voiland said individual consumers can also try to combat climate change by choosing to shop at a local farm.

“Trying to reduce the distance between where the food is grown and eaten is key,” Ryan Voiland said. “With foods that are grown in distant regions, the shipping is intensive in terms of energy use and fossil fuel, and eating more locally means shipping less distance. Any way to support and buy local helps farmers stay viable, and you’ll get better food.” Staff reporter Melina Bourdeau started working at the Greenfield Recorder in 2018. She covers Greenfield. She can be reached at: or 413772-0261, ext. 263.