Pioneer Valley farmers don’t like the climate changes they’re seeing

By BERA DUNAU, Staff Writer, Daily Hampshire Gazette

HADLEY — Michael Docter has been farming in the Pioneer Valley for more than 30 years. Asked what he thought about the future of farming in the area amid the worsening effects of climate change, he didn’t offer much optimism.

“I wish I knew,” he said. “I know I’m scared as hell.”

Docter, 57, owns and operates Winter Moon Roots in Hadley, which he founded in 2008. Before that he ran the Food Bank Farm, also in Hadley. He noted the changing climate has allowed for growing deeper into the fall. “But it’s risky,” he said.

That risk comes from the erratic nature of the weather, which is “more pronounced now” he said.

More erratic weather stemming from climate change was also noted by Dan Pratt, another Hadley farmer. There’s been a greater frequency of severe weather events, he said, pointing to severe cold and heat and highly variable precipitaiton.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” Pratt said.

Pratt is the farm manager of Astarte farm, which he founded in 1999. He sold the farm in 2014, after which he was hired on as manager.

Before farming in the Pioneer Valley, Pratt, 69, farmed in upstate New York in the 1970s, in Kentucky in the 1980s and in Tennessee in the 1990s.

Suzy Fortgang, who owns Valley View Farm in Haydenville with her husband, David Nehring, has been farming for just a decade.

Nevertheless, Fortgang said, “we hear about the effects of climate changes from the more established farmers.”

And what she hears is that farming has gotten harder, both because of changes in the weather and because of the increased prevalence of insects.

For Docter, the biggest issue is so-called “100-year rainfalls.”

“They’re happening all the time now,” he said.

The increasingly wet conditions help spread plant diseases, Docter said.

Last year, Docter said, Winter Moon Roots lost half of its carrot crop because of excessive moisture. In response, he overplanted this year, and has actually had a great season.

“This is going to be a great growing year,” he said.

Still, Docter said he didn’t know how much adaptation could be done in the face of the changing climate, and that multiple bad years in a row can cause farms to fail.

“People are going to be hurting. No doubt about it,” he said.

“Farmers are resourceful,” Docter continued. “(But) there are limits.”

And not much of an advantage is gained from lengthening growing seasons, he said.

From what he’s seen, Pratt said, weather extremes “have gotten worse,” along with insect and disease pressures.

“I think we’re seeing more and more of that with climate change,” he said. For example, late blight on tomatoes never used to be an issue, he said.

For Fortgang, the climate has been pretty stable in the 10 years she has been farming. “But I am concerned,” she said.

In particular, she worries climate change could affect the farm’s maple syrup business, which it has invested a lot of money into.

Both Docter and Pratt have adapted their farming practices with the climate in mind.

Astarte farm began experimenting with no-till agriculture about five years ago, and it has been 100 percent no-till for four years. “We don’t have any erosion at all” because of that, he said. No-till agriculture is also seen as a way to sequester carbon in the soil.

Commercial farming aside, more people growing food would be better for the planet, Pratt said, and make them better stewards for it.

Winter Moon Roots sells exclusively from December to March, and Docter said he started it with an eye toward global warming. This provides produce with a low carbon footprint during the winter, and he uses minimal refrigerants to store his roots.

Docter also said he favored a carbon tax.

“We all have to do our part,” he said.

A national carbon tax would have an important side benefit, he noted: It would be great for local agriculture because it would make importing food less attractive.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Bera Dunau can be reached at