Inequity, Creativity, and Resiliency: Farming in a Changing Climate
Becky Maden is the Assistant Farm Manager at Intervale Community Farm (ICF), a thriving member-owned CSA farm in its 21st season of growing organic produce in Burlington, Vermont. Becky has worked on several diverse vegetable farms throughout the country and around the world. At ICF, Becky is either found in the greenhouse, on a tractor, or jogging between the two. In her time spent away from the farm, Becky loves to travel, write, bike, run, ski, and cook bounteous meals with glorious produce.
For most of my socially conscious life, climate change has been the bar of doomsday fear against which I measure my life decisions. Is my career choice doing anything to solve this problem? Should I be more political in my actions, work, or day-to-day decisions? Should I become a vegan? Should I never fly again? Should I forgo an automobile? Should I push our farm business to stop burning propane and using black plastic? And perhaps most importantly, would I ever want to raise children in this messy, uncertain time?
These questions have been the wall I bang my head against when things aren’t going well. A frustrating day at work leads me to tell people that I want to quit farming and go lobby on Capitol Hill for stricter emissions controls. A day spent with a friend’s screaming toddler leads me to declare that I can’t bear the thought of raising my own children in these uncertain times. And when I leave my little Vermont bubble and witness where the priorities of most Americans are – on consuming, not conserving – the wall in front of me feels impossibly thick.
And then the rains came…2008
In the summer of 2008, it rained steadily for a week, so much so that we began to watch the National Weather Service hydrograph for flooding predictions. All of our farm fields are in the flood plain of the Winooski River, and it’s not unusual for us to have seasonal flooding. Typically, these floods happen in the springtime with snowmelt. Only rarely had there been floods on our fields when crops are in the ground.
During those rainy summer days, time crunched in around us as the hydrograph predictions rose and we made a hasty decision to harvest any semi-mature crops that would be impacted by the predictions. Over the course of a couple of hours, we frantically harvested thousands of pounds of carrots and beets. However, when the flood came later that afternoon, I was strangely disappointed to see that it didn’t even come close to our fields. We took a gamble, which left us with thousands of pounds of immature crops to wash, process, and store. I began to think that in the future, I wouldn’t quite believe the severity of flood predictions.
But just two years later, in October of 2010, we faced the same situation in the fall, and this time, the flood exceeded the predictions. We lost $30,000 of beautiful brassicas. The following year, two severe floods greeted our newly planted fields in April, and then Tropical Storm Irene gushed over everything, including our cooler and barn, in August. Each time, the hydrograph predictions were soberingly accurate. And each time, the losses felt devastating on both a financial and emotional level. Finally, last spring, we once again paddled a canoe over our crops during two floods. For the first time in my fifteen years of farming, I felt a deep hopelessness for our farm, for our neighboring farms, and for colleagues all around the state. Flooding and excessive summer rainfall are indicators of—or rather, they are--climate change in Vermont, and it doesn’t bode well for local agriculture.
One of the most profound realizations for me after these years of flooding is that seemingly small variances in land distribution had a major impact on the ability of individual farms to survive floods. This seemed to me like a microcosm of how climate change is inequitably affecting the world, ranging from Pacific Islands that are getting swallowed by the sea, to Native communities in Alaska, to neighborhoods of New Orleans.
Our community of several organic farms within Burlington’s Intervale was struck in a smaller way by this reality, as the farms with the most struggles were located on lower lying fields that flooded more frequently and stayed wet for longer stretches. In contrast, our farm has much of our production fields on well-drained sandy fields that are some of the last to flood. Only during Irene did one hundred percent of our fields go under water. It seemed like a lucky accident that our farm was one of the first farms to establish in the Intervale, and as a result, held lease rights to the driest, safest land.
The Creativity Buffer
The second insight that has settled into my consciousness after these dramatic years is that creative energy is the only way to recover from big losses. Furthermore, it seems like this creative energy needs to be immediate. Within days of each of our more recent floods, we’ve thrown ourselves into replanting, cleaning up, harnessing the goodwill of the community, and assessing our financial situation to know how to move ahead. All of this feels simultaneously draining and energizing. Some of our efforts have been fruitless; last year we tried to direct seed onions in July when we lost our ½ acre of onions in a flood; in 2010 we hand cut beds and beds of flooded cooking greens with hopes of re-growth from the plants for a future harvest; and right after Irene we tried to reseed anything we could, only to learn about new rules regarding replanting wait periods for flooded land. Each of these efforts cost us time, energy, and money, with no payoff. But other efforts had tremendous payoffs.
For instance, last spring we lost our storage cabbage plantings twice with the last flood on July 5. We quickly regrouped and decided to gamble on seeding some shorter season storage cabbage. We ended up with a glorious, warm, dry fall, and the cabbage matured into the most disease-free crop we’ve had in years. We ended up with a bumper crop, and sold every last head. The temptation to lament all of the time and money lost on those two earlier plantings might have overwhelmed our option to reseed cabbage in July. But we had creative energy working in our favor and as a result, we still (in April of the following year) have a few cabbages for ourselves to eat.
The third insight from the saddening floods and rainy stretches of the past few years is how an alternative business structure and supportive community have saved our farm from disaster and despair. Our farm is a consumer cooperative business model and we sell most of our vegetables through a CSA. This model of shared risk has helped us move with emotional and financial strength through the past few years. Not only do we thrive on the good will and positive personal energy from interacting with our CSA members, we’ve also spread the financial risk associated with coping with our losses through a member loan program as well as by harnessing other loans offered through various organizations after Irene.
Planning for Change
Finally, the fourth shift our farm has experienced in response to increased flooding and climate risk has been a radical shift in our focus and crop planning. First and foremost, immediately following Irene, we made plans to build ½ an acre of hoophouses on the only swath of land that didn’t flood during Irene. This is a huge investment on our part, but we were convinced by the flooding and rainfall trends that we need this resiliency as a buffer for our farm business. Furthermore, we have shifted our crop plans to accommodate the risks of our lower lying fields (we currently lease about 25 acres of the aforementioned high dry land, and another 30 or so of very marginal, wet, flood-prone land). Whereas previously we were using the lower fields for some of our longer season crops, we’ve decided the risk is too great. Our new plans include quick succession crops (like greens), crops that might require a long season but don’t require a lot of labor or other inputs (like grains or winter squash), or crops that aren’t cornerstones of our CSA or are even experimental (like popcorn). With this strategy, we can still make use of some of this quite fertile, productive land without too much loss involved.
We know that our farm is fortunate in many unquantifiable ways. We farm on flat, fertile, stone-free land with easy access to irrigation water. We farm only a few miles from the biggest population center of Vermont. We are supported and loved by many hundreds of people in our community. We have an extended network of support through the farming and food community. We have assessed all of these positive factors in deciding to continue our business on land that is increasingly risky as the climate changes. More than anything, the events of the past few years have sobered me in a global sense.
Vermont is a resilient, creative, and energized state. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else now that the doomsday future is suddenly the very stark present. But we are not insulated nor are we guiltless from the faults of the world. I still feel myself banging my head against the wall of fear that plagued my young adulthood, only now on the other side of the wall I can hear some good mixed with the bad, the voices of sweet CSA members, the knife swath and squeak of bounteous cabbage harvests, and the voices of farmers all over the world who are creatively figuring out how to keep growing food despite the intimidating changes now upon us.