Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Farm Strategies to Adapt to Climate Change

By Bill Duesing

In the face of increasingly disturbing news about the challenges farmers face due to climate change, there is encouraging news. According to Kip Kolesinskas, Consulting Conservation Scientist for the American Farmland Trust, there are strategies farmers can use to adapt to the flooding, drought, heat stress, insect invasions, less reliable weather and super weeds that are just some of the increasing challenges that farmers are and will be facing with the changing climate.

On a delightful but very dry first evening of autumn, CT NOFA and its partners presented a workshop at Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge on ways farmers can address some of these challenges.

Massaro Community Farm was established in 2008 with a mission to "Keep Farming, Feed People and Build Community."  A group of dedicated citizens convinced the town that farming would be a better and more appropriate use of this former dairy farm than sports fields would be. The Massaro family donated the 57 acre farm to the town in 2007. Now in its sixth year with a farm manager, the farm is certified organic and provides vegetables for a 175-member Community Supported Agriculture program, sells at a New Haven farmers market and to a number of restaurants. The farm also donates at least 10 percent of its produce to those in need in Woodbridge, New Haven and other nearby towns. In just six years, this program has provided almost 15 tons of healthy organic food to organizations that feed hungry people.
At the workshop, Kolesinskas gave a presentation on the probable effects of climate change and some of the ways they will affect farmers before participants took a tour of the strategies used at Massaro farm, led by farm manager Steve Munno.

According to Kolesinskas 2014 was the hottest year on record and 2015 looks like it will be hotter. Very warm days will get hotter, affecting crops, animals, farm workers and pick your own customers. We will see fewer very cold days, a longer freeze-free season with a later end to the growing season. Farmers will see more rain, primarily in the winter, more extreme rainfall events with longer dry periods and less predictable weather.

These changes will encourage more weeds, new pest insects, diseases and more generations of insects each year. Kolesinskas provided three levels of adaptation strategies for farmers: resistance, resilience and transformation.  That is, using management actions to resist the effects of climate change, using proactive actions to increase adaptive capacity to moderate the effects and then transitioning to a new system.  All of these strategies are likely to be necessary to insure that we can eat in the future. All the places where our food is grown are subject to the deleterious effects of climate change. Consider the drought in California and the likelihood that much of Florida's winter vegetable cropland will be under water during this century for examples.

This community farm, producing a wide variety of organically-grown food crops for the local community is a good example of the kind of transformation that is needed and is happening now.

The pictures below and their captions illustrate and explain of some of the strategies used at Massaro Farm. I've grouped them into five rough categories: Keeping the soil covered, encouraging biodiversity and ecosystem services, managing water, diversifying the farm's crops, growing environments and markets, and more aggressive plants. All of these strategies are also important for success with organic growing. 

CT NOFA's partners in this workshop were the American Farmland Trust, the University of Connecticut's Cooperative Extension System, the USDA's Risk Management Agency and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. In addition, representatives of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservations Service who provided expert guidance and funding for much of the work at this farm, were on hand. Contact the closest NRCS office to connect with their expertise and funding options, including the organic initiative.

Massaro Community Farm's Adaptation Strategies  

1. Keeping the soil covered
Growing plants protect soil from erosion while they pump carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. In healthy soil, underground organisms grab the carbon containing compounds and incorporate some of them into humus.This kind of soil is also better able to absorb water.  Avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides encourages more soil organisms which can store carbon and aerate soil.

This cover crop of field peas and oats protects the soil from erosion and builds soil health.
Grassy strips between raised beds. Steve planted a cover crop between plastic covered raised beds to protect the soil and avoid cultivation and the bare soil it would leave.  Earlier in the season these strips are mowed.
 2. Increasing biodiversity is a key strategy for organic success and adapting to climate change.  A biodiverse farm environment provides a number of ecosystem services, especially as it creates a habitat for helpful birds and insects.
Non-native invasive species were removed and native species were planted to create this hedgerow which provides a windbreak and habitat for beneficial organisms.

This large field was impassible because of non-native invasive plants.  After removing the invaders, a pollinator garden was planted, left, and a cover crop was sowed in the field to the far right.  Massaro has an apiary and a strong beekeeping education program. The pollinator crops also provide flowers now and eventually shrubs for sale.

3. Managing Water
One important goal is to keep water from eroding soil or running off the farm by encouraging it to infiltrate to recharge aquifers. 

Water flowing down this slight slope from right to left was flooding the crop field on the far left.  This constructed ditch collects and slows down the water while allowing it to flow around the growing area and move slowly into wetlands to recharge the aquifer. The farm uses wells for irrigation.
Close up of the ditch which diverts water around the field to the left.  The field no longer gets flooded and is usable earlier in the season.
A gravel pad installed on a farm road to allow machinery to pass without creating muddy areas.

Just a slight and careful grading of this farm road directs water away from growing areas and toward infiltration in the wetland.
On the advice of the NRCS, Steve changed the orientation of his beds from going up and down this slight incline to going across it in order to capture more water for his crops. Note the drip irrigation in the foreground and the white row cover toward the back protecting young brassica crops from insects.

4. Diversifying the Farm's Crops, Growing Environments and Markets
Climate change will bring more uncertainty and variability.  Growing a wider variety of crops, for a longer season, using high tunnels to protect sensitive crops such as tomatoes and to extend the growing and harvest season and having multiple options for marketing the farm's  produce all help address that uncertainty. Massaro grows over 50 kinds of vegetables. Weekly CSA shares can be adjusted depending on which crops are successful and which don't do so well.

High tunnel with a new crop of radishes for fall harvest.  At the rear are a few grafted tomatoes.  They did well and Steve may grow more of those next year.
Massaro Farm has two moveable high tunnels which provide options for growing environments and prevent the salt buildup that can happen in a fixed structure growing situation.

5. More aggressive plants
Higher levels of carbon dioxide and longer growing seasons increase the growth of some plants, including poison ivy, increase its toxicity and make herbicides and other control strategies less effective.
This field has lots of poison ivy growing in it.  It frequently can be controlled by regular mowing, but not here. Poison ivy is a native plant whose seeds are valuable bird food.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Organic History and the NOFA Summer Conference ~ "The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible"

by Bill Duesing

The 41st NOFA Summer Conference last month at the University of Massachusetts in
Amherst provided an exciting combination of cutting edge and practical information so useful for organic growers and eaters as well as opportunities to visit with old and new NOFA friends, just as it has for four decades.

It also provided an opportunity to reflect on the history of the organic movement and how the holistic organic approach with deep roots in traditional cultures has the ability to solve current environmental and social problems. (For more on the value of this approach, I highly recommend Bill McKibben's recent essay "The Pope and the Planet" in the New York Review of Books.)

Over 1,100 people of all ages attended this year's conference which was dedicated to Juanita Nelson, a peace and civil rights activist, war tax refuser, subsistence farmer, the impetus behind Greenfield, Massachusetts' Free Harvest Supper and Winter Fare and a longtime NOFA member.

The theme, "Healing the Climate, Healing Ourselves: Regeneration through Microbiology" referred to the two keynote presentations.  On Friday night, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride talked about the numerous roles the microorganisms in our intestines (the human microbiome) play in our physical and mental health in a presentation titled "Overcoming Psychiatric Problems by Healing the Digestive System." On Saturday night, Ronnie Cummins talked about the role of the soil microbiome in soil, plant and planetary health in "Reversing Global Warming and Rural Poverty through Regenerative Organics."  These two presentations were a near perfect expression of the holistic nature of organic agriculture as expressed in the quote at the beginning of this piece which is variously attributed to Sir Albert Howard and to Lady Eve Balfour. 

Howard went to India nearly a century ago to teach farmers there good British agricultural methods.  Instead he a discovered a better way to farm based on composting, crop rotation and human labor.  His An Agricultural Testament was published in 1940 and was very influential in the early organic farming movement.

Organic farming pioneer, Lady Eve Balfour, began farming in Britain in 1920.  In 1943, she published The Living Soil based on the first three years of her pioneering side-by-side comparison of  organic and chemical farming. A few years later she founded the Soil Association, still Britain's organic farming organization.

Before the Saturday night keynote, NOFA/Mass premiered its video on restoring carbon to the soil with the help of plants and a vibrant soil ecosystem.  The organization also distributed its white paper, "Soil Carbon Restoration: Can Biology do the Job?" written by Jack Kittredge. Both of these valuable resources are available here. The short version is that much of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is altering the climate originally came from the soil as a result of tillage, agricultural chemical use, long periods of bare soil between cash crops as well as from deforestation. One of the most powerful and viable ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere is to restore it to the soil by using growing methods which keep the soil covered with a variety of plants as much a possible and tilling as little as possible.  Another important tool in this work is careful, rotational grazing by animals to encourage deep rooted, diverse pastures and vigorous soil life. These strategies can also help restore water to soil and aquifers and increase plant health and resistance to diseases.

Of the more than 100 workshops offered, I attended five, all of which provided valuable information for use on our farm.  Farmer Daniel Botkin's workshop "Build and Manage Low-tech, Low-cost Low-tunnels" demonstrated many ways to expand the use of low tunnels including as nurseries for a variety of crops, to grow crops that are not quite hardy here and to extend the harvest season at both ends. He keeps any soil that isn't covered by plants mulched with hay. He doesn't ever till his soil. (This reminded me of Connecticut gardener Ruth Stout who was famous for using mulch instead of tillage in her garden.) Julie Rawson, who presented the workshop "Raising High Quality Vegetables while Building Carbon" does some tillage, but always adds compost or cover crops at the same time. Julie uses many different cover crops and creates specialized composts for different plants.  The workshop "Improving Soil Health with Cover Crops" was presented by Thomas Akin, the Massachusetts State Resource Conservationist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). He encouraged vegetable farmers to use a diverse mixture of cover crops whenever possible to fix nitrogen, scavenge nutrients and feed a wide variety of soil organisms.  In the past few years, the NRCS has become very active in promoting practices which increase and maintain soil health.

UMass Extension Associate Susan Scheufele's very informative workshop on "Integrated Pest Management in Brassicas" (using organic strategies) provided examples of the effects the changing climate is having on our growing practices.  New pests have moved into this region as temperatures warm and the growing season lengthens. Fortunately, for managing most of these insects and diseases, there are low-tech organic methods, such as using straw mulch, perimeter trap crops and good scouting. It was wonderful to hear this UMass extension educator talk so knowledgeably and respectfully about organic methods. It hasn't been and and still isn't always so. (You can view Susan's Powerpoint slides here.  Be forewarned  that it includes information about chemical controls which she skipped at NOFA.)

I finished up the conference with Dan Rosenberg's excellent  "Advanced Vegetable Fermentation" workshop to learn more about this low energy and healthful way to preserve the bounty of the harvest for winter eating. The founder of Real Pickles, Dan was able to address questions from folks who were fermenting a wide variety of vegetables at home and on a commercial scale.

Receiving the first "Bill Duesing Lifetime Achievement Award"
This year's conference also provided me with three opportunities to reflect on the growth of the organic movement in this region, on the deep roots of organic practice and my involvement with NOFA. I presented a workshop on "Organic History, Theory and Practice" and was interviewed as part of the oral history project at the W.E.B. Dubois Library at UMass which is collecting NOFA archives as part of its social change in New England collection. Then on Saturday night, I was awarded the first "Bill Duesing Lifetime Achievement Award" by the NOFA Interstate Council.

How it all began . . .

It was just a little notice in Organic Gardening magazine early in 1972 that got me connected to NOFA, then only a few months old and based in Vermont. The notice advertised a meeting of organic farmers that winter. (I believe it was in a Grange hall basement.) For three years before that I had lived on an old farm and grown food as part of the Pulsa artists' commune at Harmony Ranch in Oxford, CT.  Several members had parents who were organic gardeners so Organic Gardening magazines were always lying around the farmhouse.  

My first garden at Harmony Ranch as seen in the article, "The Public Sensoriums of Pulsa: Cybernetic Abstraction and the Biopolitics of Urban Survival" in the fall 2008 issue of Art Journal.

I'd also read and been inspired by F. H. King's Farmers of Forty Centuries, Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, published in 1911, in which the USDA soil scientist describes how farmers in China, Japan and Korea had managed to feed a large population from a small land base for 4,000 years without destroying the fertility of the soil.  He understood how linear, industrial agriculture decreased soil health and fertility in this country. King describes many practices that are now standard on good organic farms: multiple cropping and intercropping, intelligent rotations, cover crops, growing food almost everywhere and recycling all organic matter.   I was also inspired by Louis Bromfield's description in Pleasant Valley (published in 1945) of the way he returned dust bowl ruined farms to fertility and made springs that had been dry for years flow again by using organic methods, sustainable forestry, compost and careful grazing.

The owners of Harmony Ranch wanted to sell it for industrial purposes. Some of us wanted to have a piece of land where we could plant trees and see them mature. I wanted to continue the organic growing which had excited me for several years.

Earlier that winter, we had found a beautiful piece of land on the other side of Oxford, part of what had been Joe and Josephine Solar's farm. I was ready to learn more about organic growing and homesteading, so the NOFA meeting sounded very good.

After that first meeting I was hooked on NOFA. I found many kindred spirits - well educated back-to-the-landers who were interested in growing healthy food for their families and communities.  People who couldn't imagine spraying poisons on their food, or even handling toxic pesticides. At that time the agricultural establishment was resistant to new farmers who wanted to grow organically.  It just didn't work they said. So we decided that we needed to share information among ourselves and NOFA has been facilitating that for nearly 45 years through its conferences, workshops, advocacy and outreach programs. It is amazing to see how consumers, farmers and even some in the ag establishment now understand the importance and effectiveness of organic farming methods.

Within a few years, NOFA consisted of chapters in Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as a growing number of members in other states in the Northeast. At some point in the late 1970s, I volunteered to be on the NOFA Interstate Council as one of two representatives of members who weren't in Vermont or New Hampshire.  

Beginning in 1975, the Council created the Summer Conference.  Wendell Berry was the keynote speaker at the first conference held at High Mowing School in New Hampshire. Although I missed the Friday night keynote, I remember especially NOFA Founding President Samuel Kaymen's workshop on soil fertility the next day and the workshops on Biodynamic Agriculture which were featured on Sunday. Until the mid 1980s, the Conference alternated between Vermont and New Hampshire.

The Council also published the organization's newspaper, The Natural Farmer and was ready to accept new state chapters as membership in other states grew.  During the 1980s, chapters were formed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.  The Rhode Island Chapter was formed in 1990. I was the founding president of the Connecticut chapter in 1982 and served as a board member until I started working for CT NOFA in 2001 when the organization hired its first coordinator before expanding my title to Executive Director. I retired from this position in 2013, but still serve as the Organic Advocate. 

The Interstate Council provided a way for state chapters to work together on important issues. Organic certification, for example, which most of the states had initiated in the 1980s and the formation of the National Organic Program in the 1990s were a strong focus. The Council also spread the expertise of Northeast growers through farmer-to-farmer meetings, a multiyear project to encourage CSAs, The Real Dirt (published in 1993 to share the strategies of successful organic farmers) and the NOFA Organic Practices Handbook series.

Over the years the Council was a founding member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and of the Agricultural Justice Project. The Interstate's policy work has grown significantly in the past decade.

Once the Connecticut NOFA chapter was formed, I represented it on the Council until 2014.  It was my privilege to be president of the Interstate Council for several three-year terms in the 1990s and 2000s. The work of the Council in tying together the NOFA members is critically important. 

I was honored to be able to play a part in the leadership of this pioneering organization for nearly four decades, humbled by my Lifetime Achievement Award and am excited by the next two generations of organic farmers, gardeners and activists who attended this year's conference.