Climate Change ?

CR Lawn, 2011

After the past season, climate change is impossible to deny and hard to overlook. During the 39 days from Aug. 27 through Oct. 5, I logged roughly 18 inches of rain in Colrain, MA, an annual rate of 168.6 inches, the stuff of tropical rainforests, not New England. Donna Dyrek in Hartland, ME, 4–5 hours distant, had 20.75 inches total for Aug. and Sept, some folks in PA and southern New York State much more. Then, on Oct. 9, four days after the high pressure that finally brought clearing and our first frosts to the hill country, Boston recorded 87°, a whopping five degrees higher for that date than the old record that had stood for 69 years. Less than 3 weeks later, Colrain got 17 inches of snow!

We used to say that if you don’t like the weather in New England, wait five minutes. Never true, now less so than ever. Instead, stalled fronts are hanging around for many days, long extended lows of humid wet weather, followed by highs that build for days and days into extreme humidity erupting into violent serial thunderstorms. I had at least five fronts deposit more than three inches of rain in 2011: exactly what the climate change models predicted, more and more extreme weather, less and less moderation. Though a lucky few farmers had bountiful crops in 2011, many more endured unexpected difficulties. Since I moved to MA, this makes three consecutive extreme weather years, only one of which produced great bounty.

Common Ground Fair invited television weather personality Lou McNally to talk about the implications of climate change for growers. McNally believes climate change is real, but claims that in the last 30 years, Maine cooled by 0.4° while the rest of New England warmed by 1.6°. Except for the past three years, I lived year-round and farmed in Maine and cannot believe McNally is correct. Cooler than 30 years ago? No way! Winter lows almost never approach past levels, summer highs breach 90° far more frequently, and the first fall frosts have receded 2–3 weeks. Turns out McNally, though he had access to the most advanced climate modeling, wasn’t even living in the state several of the years he broadcast weather here. So he probably missed the Mar. 22, 2010, ice-out at Lake Auburn, ME, 8 days earlier than any recorded over the previous 136 years!

To gain a longer perspective, I consulted a volume put out by the U.S. Patent Office, the predecessor of the USDA, discovering that the high temperature recorded in Gardiner, ME, in 1858 for the entire month of August was only 77°. Two other Maine locations weren’t much warmer. Unthinkable now!

Dr. Alan K. Betts, who has studied climate change in Vermont since 1960, documents on his marvelous website that the growing season for frost-sensitive plants has increased by about 3.7 days per decade. The duration that small lakes remain frozen in winter has changed even more, averaging nearly 7 days fewer per decade, a decrease of nearly a month over the past 40 years! The first lilac bloom has advanced by a slower, but still significant, 1.6 days per decade.

How to respond to climate change? Take McNally’s ideas, good as far as they go, deeper. He said get to know farmers one climate zone removed, study what and when they are planting and diversify your crops. I would add:

  • Diversify your range of crops. When I started farming in 1973 I had 100 frost-free days on average, 110 at best. In Colrain I now have 40 more, some from moving that one zone south, many from climate change. Crops once impossible or marginal that are now likely winners include peanuts, yams, longer-season melons, peppers, winter squash, and Yard Long beans.
  • Also consider growing staple crops that have been neglected in New England, such as heritage wheat and rice or quinoa and grain amaranth.
  • Diversify seasonal windows and successions. Instead of a mere 2–3 weeks of fresh sweet corn, the longer season permits me 8–10 weeks if I start in early May with a short-season variety and keep sowing till July 4. I can even make winter squash and melon successions, a marvelous hedge against extreme weather. If it didn’t work the first time, try again. Autumn is getting longer and more temperate, allowing harvests of greens, broccoli and cauliflower way into November. For many crops targeting the fall harvest gives better results than fighting fickle spring weather and summer heat waves.
  • Study phenology and sow accordingly. Phenology looks at natural events like when the first robin is sighted, peepers start peeping, trees leaf out, lilacs and apples bloom and how changes in these dates relate to climate change. I often sow sweet corn at apple bloom, for example. Phenology is not 100% foolproof, apple trees sometimes make mistakes, but, in general, peepers, birds and trees are more sentient about nature than humans, and they provide clues to how the climate is changing and what it implies for our agriculture.
  • Moderate the effects of extreme weather. My partner Eli saved at least one of our beds from Irene-induced flooding by diverting excess water to make a pond, where it is available during droughts.
  • Use season-extending devices such as greenhouses, hoophouses, high and low tunnels, caterpillars. Those of us who prefer to be outdoors in the elements won’t find them fully acceptable substitutes for reliable weather, but they can mitigate the risks climate change will bring.
  • McNally advised us not to listen to climate deniers, instead to just do what we have to do for ourselves to adjust. Yes, but that is not enough. Climate is the ultimate commons, its effects, both good and bad, shared by all. Policy decisions affect our climate. If the deniers have their way and we lose opportunities to address potential problems, all of us will suffer, and our own efforts to ameliorate the effects will be insufficient. Earth can be Heaven or Hell. It is up to us.