Using biodiversity to weather a changing world

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 9, 2018, by Sarah Robertson

Neat rows of freshly planted peach, pear and nectarine trees sit on a hillside at Phoenix Fruit Farm, the newest addition to a decades-old orchard in Belchertown.

The new trees are one step toward the vision of Elly Vaughan, a veteran organic farmer and former manager at Atkins Farms, to diversify her crop, promote resilience and maintain a sustainable business in the face of climate change.

“Being diverse is really important, because if things start to fail, you’re not just growing one or two things,” Vaughan said. “The more different types of crops you’re growing the stronger you’re going to be, and the most versatile you are.”

Elly used to work on the orchard, 100 acres on top of a hill with views to the north of the Quabbin Reservoir and Connecticut River Valley, owned by Atkins Farms before she bought it from them last year. Now, she is learning how to run a business, care for fruit trees, and build a sustainable business model while grappling with the uncertainties of climate change.

“It’s new to me, so sometimes it’s the most amazing exultant feeling ever, looking over at 100 acres with over 40 acres of trees on it,” Vaughan said. “Then sometimes I’m like, wow I need to make sure that I make this a profitable business so I can keep all this because if I can’t succeed then I will lose everything that is dear to me.”

With scientists anticipating more extreme weather events in the future years due to climate change, having a diverse crop gives growers a better chance of turning a profit in an unseasonable year. Caring for perennial fruit trees is different from vegetable farming in that growers have to think in decades, instead of years.

“I’m committed to diversifying this farm, but I’m realizing how much of a challenge that is,” Vaughan said. “It’s hard to establish new fruit plantings and it’s hard to decide what should be next,

Jon Clements works for UMass Extension, a program part of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment that uses the university’s academic resources to educate surrounding communities and businesses on the best agricultural practices. Driving a car emblazoned with the UMass logo and the official title “Fruit Advisor,” Clement advises commercial fruit growers across the state on the best practices to cultivate their crop and turn a profit.

“Massachusetts is a really good climate for growing apples in general,” Clements said. “What concerns me, if what they say about climate change is true, is the extremes, because extremes when you have a perennial crops can really hurt perennial crops.”

Massachusetts sits in what Clements calls an “apple sweet spot,” able to grow almost any variety of apple except the late-maturing species. The biggest threat to an annual apple crop is a late spring frost, he said, because apple blossoms are especially vulnerable when they’re in bloom.

“It’s still risky, and it’s not going to get any less risky because it’s warming,” Clements said. “As long as we have wild fluctuations — like we seem to be having — that’s going to be problematic for a perennial crop, because we can’t move it, we can’t put a greenhouse over it.”

Peaches and nectarines, like the new trees Elly planted, are stone fruits, known by their hard seed pits, and generally grown in warmer climates.

“Those are not historically grown in this region; they are more of a southern fruit crop but they do okay up here,” Vaughan said. “But if you want to talk about climate change, with the average rising temperatures, peaches may someday be a more viable crop in Vermont if things continue on the track we’re on.”

While Vaughan inherited a few dozen elderly peach trees when she purchased the farm almost three years ago, the nectarines are new, and both are fruits are atypical in the New England climate. Massachusetts sits on the northern edge of the stone fruit climate, where fruits like peaches and nectarines can grow, but not as well as they do in Georgia.

“If you’re going to plant peaches, you’ve got to understand you’re going to be frozen out one of every five years,” Clements said. “That’s happened before; it’ll happen again. The question is, if we get these weird weather things and it gets really cold in the winter, we’re done for the year.”

Vaughan managed Red Fire Farm for seven years, then worked as a manager/grower for Atkins Farm before buying the orchard from them last year. She has over a decade of organic farming experience.

“It’s different with tree fruit than it is with vegetables,” Vaughan said. “You have to think in a longer term, with multiple-year planning at a time.”

Droughts aren’t the only concern of perennial fruit growers; too much moisture can cause disease to spread easier, and warmer winters can disrupt a tree’s bloom.

Farmers can protect themselves financially by buying crop insurance. Clements said crop insurance is sold by private companies, but subsidized and regulated by the government, otherwise the cost of insurance would be prohibitive for farmers like Vaughan. However, even with insurance, it is hard to guarantee a fair payout.

“The apple insurance is abysmal. The payback you get for apples is so, so low,” Vaughan said. “It’s like they’re in denial about what it takes to grow them. It’s more expensive here because of all the disease management we have to do, and we get a higher price point for our apples because we sell most of them direct, we’re accustomed to and have to get a certain payback on a crop.”

Even cold snaps are vital to a fruit tree’s development. Diseases die off in the wintertime, and if it doesn’t get cold enough trees don’t know when to transition from it’s dormant state.

“There is a lot of technical skill involved in growing trees,” Clements said. “If you screw something up, you’ve got to wait a whole year to fix it.”

Farmers can but crop insurance to give themselves a safety net in case of a major freeze or disease-spreading wet season, however the payout is not always satisfactory.

“Risk management has become more prevalent,” Clements said. “It’s becoming more prevalent for growers to realize they have to take proactive steps to realize help whatever they can do to guarantee a crop.”

After months of filling out application forms, crafting a business plan and taking required courses, she received a long-term $500,000 loan from the USDA, plus another 7-year, $139,000 loan for farm equipment. This spring she spent about $4,500 planting four acres of new fruit trees, to be irrigated with a new system purchased with the help of a state grant.

“We flirted with disaster,” Clements said. “It’s not over until it’s over, a lot can happen between now, August and September.”

During the peak season, Vaughan hires up to six seasonal workers and 1 full-time year-round employee. This season has been favorable so far, Vaughan said, and they expect a standard harvest next season. The challenge now, she says, is making it through the next season.

“There’s the incredible feeling of look what I’ve  accomplished paired with the pressure of performing because I have very real debt service to pay at the end of the season to make it all work,” Vaughan said.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at