Real Food For Thought

Farming in a Changing Climate

By Bryan Alexander, Clifton Park Field Manager

March 12, 2015

This past winter, I was able to attend the Future Harvest CASA, Cultivate the Chesapeake Foodshed, conference in College Park. Future Harvest CASA is a Maryland-based organization that represents producers and consumers advocating for a cleaner, more sustainable food system in the Chesapeake region. Every year, they stage a conference that allows these constituents to meet up, learn from each others’ successes and failures over the last year, and get excited about their plans for the future. For a lot of farmers, this is a rare opportunity to get off the farm in the lean months, see old friends, and make some new ones.

I could go on forever about all the exciting strategies for sustainable food production I learned this year, but, while we’re buried in some extreme weather of our own, I’d especially like to share some takeaways from a talk I attended on the relationship between climate change and farms.

1.IMG_1243 Climate change doesn’t just mean warmer weather.

The first part of this should be pretty clear to anyone who has struggled through these past two miserable winters. Especially since, globally, 2014 was the warmest winter on record! Climate change means more variability, and with it…

2. Less predictability.

From planning crops to scheduling CSA pickups, farmers thrive on regular, predictable patterns. With a product that sometimes doesn’t go to market until months after we start investing our time, a regular, reliable weather system is essential to our livelihood and your plates. One grape grower in Garrett County said he’s seen spring temperatures move forward 2-4 weeks over just the past 15 years. So that might be good for farmers to have longer growing seasons for delicious summer fruits, right? Unfortunately, these changes come with…

3. More extremes.

This last spring, Maryland also experienced one of the latest frosts anyone can remember. For a perennial fruit-growers (like that grape farmer), this was a disaster. It killed the new growth on their trees and vines (coaxed out earlier by the early spring) and ravaged the year’s harvest. Annual vegetable farms like Real Food are less effected, but the frost did cost us our year’s fig crop and wasted our earlier hours seeding and transplanting field tomatoes. And the temperature’s not the only thing that’s out of whack…

4. Wetter springs, drier summers.

Warmer global temperatures affect the movement of weather fronts in ways scientists are still working to understand. What we do know is that, while annual precipitation is staying roughly the same, our springs and winters are getting wetter while our summers and falls are getting drier. An organic hay farmer who spoke has seen his yields cut in half and the prices for out-of-state hay triple. He pointed out that quality hay stores in the Mid-Atlantic are getting so low that Canadian growers are starting to find it profitable to ship to the region. For us, this means that it’s harder to work our fields in the critical spring planting season and less sustainable to irrigate those same crops in the summer. It could even mean shorter growing seasons for farmers unable to get tractors into their soaked fields. But that isn’t all that’s changing with warmer temperatures…

5. tomato hornwormBugs!

Warmer average temperatures and a wetter climate are moving up the season and extending the life-cycles of veggie-devouring pests as well. Our farm has seen major losses to harlequin bugs, and a UMd researcher warned us the region is being threatened by invasive species moving up from the south as well. But even with all this bad news, farmers are taking it upon themselves to develop strategies to mitigate these risks and protect our food shed. (Photo: Mission Thrive participants inspecting a persistent pest – the tomato horn worm!)

(Check in next week for a follow-up post from Bryan regarding how regional farmers are strategically coping with these changes!)

About Real Food Farm

Real Food Farm works toward a just and sustainable food system by improving neighborhood access to healthy food, providing experience-based education, and developing an economically viable, environmentally responsible local agriculture sector.

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