On the front lines of Climate Change: to prepare for an unpredictable future, Valley farmers think big
Published December 16, 2023 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Greenfield Recorder
By Jacob Nelson
“So much was just about to bloom,” says Suna Turgay of Flowerwork Farm in Northampton. “And then the flooding came.”
Warmer, wetter, and less predictable weather are all on the rise in New England as our climate changes. The idea of normal is constantly evolving, as each year seems to bring new challenges forcing local farmers to adapt.
Last summer’s persistent rainfall and catastrophic flooding left many farmers scrambling to keep their farms intact and businesses afloat. Dedicated farmers, individuals, community organizations, and public officials rallied in support in their hour of need. Now that waters have receded, many are reflecting on what lessons can be learned from last year’s ordeal.
It is worth noting that while flooding made the most headlines, local farmers contended with examples of extreme weather fueled by climate change on several fronts this year. Cold snaps in February and May destroyed peach buds and other fruit and berry blossoms, respectively. Meanwhile, many farms that were not flooded still faced low yields and rampant fungal disease caused by the rain.
However, the lessons learned from flooding raise ideas that are applicable to other challenges farmers face from extreme weather events.
With future growing conditions becoming both riskier and less predictable, building generalized resilience is becoming more important than ever. On the farm level, farmers are reassessing how they work with their land. At a community level, greater collaboration may help.
At a societal level, many are starting to question why farmers, who grow the food we need to survive, are not supported on par with other professionals who protect our basic needs and safety.
A flood in July?
The relatively new Flowerwork Farm sits on an eighth of an acre of leased land within the Northampton Community Farm run by Grow Food Northampton. There, next to the Mill River, Turgay and her farming partner Stacia Potter grow a mix of annuals, perennials, and herbs that become materials for floral arrangements sold locally or used in grand designs they create for weddings and other events.
“Stacia is more the artist, and I feel like a farmer growing the art supplies,” Turgay says. “We follow permaculture principles — growing within nature’s patterns — and we don’t use any herbicides and barely any fertilizers, just compost.”
The farm’s layout is carefully designed to maximize yield in a small space while providing a welcoming habitat for wildlife and humans alike. With a differently abled child and a desire to welcome visitors to volunteer and learn, accessibility is central to Turgay’s vision.
The farmers knew flooding was a risk, but neither predicted anything like the events that unfolded on July 10. As Grow Food Northampton’s Michael Skillicorn describes, “When the Mill River jumped its banks that day, it flooded approximately 40 acres of our farm in just 20 minutes. Nine out of ten farmers on the land were affected, some with a complete crop loss and some with less. About three-quarters of the 320 community garden plots were also submerged.”
What was shocking about this flooding was the timing. In the Northeast, rivers and streams often swell past their banks in the spring when melting snow oversaturates the soil. The nutrients laid down by seasonal flooding of the Connecticut River and its tributaries are what make this region’s soils so coveted, and Indigenous and settler farmers have reaped the benefits of this fertility while accepting the somewhat predictable risks for thousands of years.
Yet as climate change shifts weather patterns, flooding is much less predictable. A warmer atmosphere is holding more moisture and letting loose more intense storms throughout the year. In fact, the Fifth National Climate Assessment just released by the federal government shows that days with 2-plus inches of rain have increased by almost 50% in the Northeast since the 1950s, while days with 5-plus inches of rain have doubled.
Now that this increased risk of flooding has gone from probability to reality, many local farmers have clearer ideas about how they can better prepare for the next one.
Farming smarter in a floodplain
“If I had gotten things in earlier, I would have had some harvest beforehand.”
That was Turgay’s first thought as she grappled with what the July 10 flood took from her. This past spring, she delayed planting until maintenance on the Northampton Community Farm’s water lines was complete, then rushed to plant everything right away, making up for lost time. As a result, many flowers were poised to bloom at the same time right before flooding destroyed them.
“It was a huge lesson in timing,’ she says. “Farmers are always thinking about succession planting (planting one crop after another in the same space to stagger the harvest) as a sales strategy, but reducing risk is a whole other reason to do it, and we learned that.”
Spreading out the harvest is one strategy that creates generalized resilience to any extreme conditions. Diversifying the kinds of crops planted is another. In a floodplain specifically, Turgay notes that perennial trees and shrubs with more established roots have a survival advantage, pointing to Smith College researcher Piyush Labhsetwar’s pawpaw orchard on the same community farmland, which mostly survived.
Another takeaway is that nonedible crops are a safer investment on flood-prone farmland. Since floodwaters are often contaminated by chemicals and pathogens, farmers cannot sell anything edible that gets submerged, and must wait weeks or months to replant, depending on the crop. Growing flowers, Turgay could use what survived and replant immediately.
Stepping back a bit, flooding has also highlighted equity ramifications of who farms where. As the Valley’s fertile river bottom land floods more often, less-resourced and historically marginalized farmers cultivating smaller areas are the least able to absorb losses. The footprint of a small farm might be entirely within a floodplain, while a larger farm has greater flood resilience simply because they spread across more land with differing levels of vulnerability.
It is much less likely that flooding completely wipes out a large farm, but smaller farms might lose everything. With less resources behind them, historically marginalized and smaller farm owners are also less able to move out of harm’s way.
Addressing these inequities is complicated, yet crucial to the pursuit of justice in our food system. Says Skillicorn, “As land stewards, we are grappling with the responsible and appropriate use of land, including which farms and people are using it. Ideally, the farmers working with flood-prone land should be able to better withstand the impacts of a flood.”
Thinking beyond the next flood
As climate change brings more risk of flooding, adapting farming strategies will be important. The same goes for addressing the disproportionate impact flooding has on the most vulnerable farmland — and the most vulnerable farmers. But flooding is just one concern of many.
“Next year we could have a late frost, or a drought,” Turgay says. “And farmers like me don’t have the resources to prepare for big disasters. Small disasters, maybe. But it’s hard when there’s so much to consider.”
And her comments are only about weather patterns. In recent years, economic volatility has also been a considerable burden on farmers, particularly rising costs for basic materials. From COVID-19 to avian flu, health emergencies added further complications. All these challenges were possible. None of them were forecast.
How do you prepare for a future you can’t predict? That is the core question in farmers’ efforts to persevere and keep feeding everyone.
“And it can’t be just a question for farmers to figure out,” says David Fisher, a farmer at Natural Roots in Conway. “We’re such a small, overworked, underpaid slice of the population. It has to be a question society answers as a whole.”
Natural Roots lost over 95% of their harvest last July when three floods swept through their cropland in the span of 12 days. Between efforts to keep the business afloat and to feed the farm’s community-supported agriculture members, Fisher has given this conundrum a lot of thought as well.
Farming has always been uncertain, and with climate change the risk and probability of weather disasters is increasing. Plus, these impacts are global, wreaking havoc on farms everywhere. Importing more food grown elsewhere when local farms struggle is a less reliable strategy every passing year. Yet farming remains one of the most vulnerable jobs on the planet. As Fisher puts it, “We can’t back our work up to the cloud.”
This makes disaster relief a critical part of any strategy to ensure a reliable food supply in the age of climate change. In 2023, it’s unknown how many local farm businesses would have been pushed over the edge if not for incredible support from lawmakers and community members, particularly through the philanthropic Massachusetts Farm Resiliency Fund and the state-designated Natural Disaster Recovery Program for Agriculture. Together, both funds distributed over $23 million to embattled farmers, ensuring they could remain in business and keep feeding their communities.
“At the same time,” Fisher says, “disaster relief is like treating symptoms of an illness rather than working towards intrinsic health and resilience. What does an intrinsically healthy farm economy look like? I don’t know myself. But when I don’t have answers, I look to other models that seem to be working better.”
One familiar model Fisher points to is how communities support fire departments. Like farms, fire departments protect a basic human need, in this case shelter rather than food. But communities don’t invest in food security the same way they do public safety.
“My Conway Fire Department is funded by the community no question, no matter the circumstances,” he says. “Come hell or high water, they will be here to keep us safe. We don’t fund them based on how many fires they put out.”
Fisher and others acknowledge that these ideas might feel new, but they are not unprecedented. Many European countries provide farmers with far more assurance, funding resilience for farm businesses, the local food supply, and the environment. These policies are not aimed at enriching small and mid-size farmers. Instead, they provide a floor that prevents farmers from sinking into ruin.
“Eventually,” Fisher says, “I would like to see farmers and farmworkers financially supported so we can take care of the land, take care of ourselves, and feed our community without being squeezed for all we can sacrifice.”
In an age of big challenges, pursuing a brighter future might mean leaving behind some long-held strategies and ways of thinking and embracing new ideas. No one has it all figured out, but when it comes to the food system, local farmers have a ground-floor view of what might work.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about CISA’s work and ways to support local farms confronting the impacts of climate change, visit buylocalfood.org/climateaction.