Maine Farmers Struggle with New, Harsher Climate Reality


Tom Drew thought he’d seen all of it. A dairy farmer of 30 years in Woodland, Maine, Drew has weathered an terrible lot of change. On an overcast, chilly day final fall, he rested in his milking parlor. As he leaned his giant body on the steel desk, he recounted the historical past of the farm, his household’s attachment to the outdated jack pines out entrance. Like many small- and medium-scale dairy farmers, remaining worthwhile is a problem for Drew, and daily feels unsure.

Even so, he wasn’t ready for the drought of 2018. Drew watched as his pasture withered. He waited for rain that by no means got here. Finally, he had to purchase hay to feed his cows, a considerable further price that he didn’t handle to repay till over a yr later.

Tom Drew has been farming all his life in Northern Maine, however has by no means seen something just like the drought of 2018.

“You live through something horrible like [the drought of 2018], which is something I’ve never seen in my lifetime. . . . Could you survive two of those in a row here? No, I don’t believe you could,” says Drew. He sometimes cuts his personal hay, and depends on rain all through the summer season to maintain the grass rising. But that yr, the rain simply didn’t come. “You eventually see yourself having lived the extremes you couldn’t have imagined . . . I was forced to pay attention.”

Farming in Maine has at all times made for an unpredictable life, however that unpredictability has gotten worse. As the quantity of carbon dioxide—and different greenhouse gases—within the ambiance continues to rise unabated, farmers everywhere in the nation face excessive climate occasions and unpredictable temperatures, whereas shoppers face the ensuing meals shocks.

Although all areas are warming, the Northeast is doing so faster than any other region in the contiguous U.S., and Maine farmers might need to adapt greater than they may ever have imagined. Some are additionally altering their practices to enhance their soil in hopes of mitigating a few of the most excessive outcomes of local weather change.

In a state the place plentiful rainfall was as soon as thought of a given, Maine’s current droughts have brought about many farmers to rethink their methods. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the Northeast is experiencing longer, drier summers punctuated by extra intense precipitation occasions. In reality, the area is seeing extra precipitation will increase than anyplace else within the nation.

Ivan Fernandez, a professor on the University of Maine Climate Change Institute and lead writer of a current report on Maine’s Climate Future, says the summer season of 2020 has borne out this sample. “We’re living with a bit of whiplash this year, with both drought as well as extreme precipitation and they’re not very predictable.”


Rob Johanson with soggy soil in spring of 2019. Erratic climate and moist fields have affected the crop rotations at Goranson Farm. In addition to wetter climate, Rob Johanson has needed to improve irrigation for intervals of drought on his farm.

Sean Birkel, a University of Maine climatologist, notes that Maine is getting hotter and wetter total. Much of this warming is happening within the winter, with extra rain, much less snow, and practically two weeks extra of frost-free days than there have been in 1930. Average annual precipitation has elevated 15 percent since 1895. However, the mix of drought and intense rains complicates land management for farmers. In addition, the onset of spring temperatures is less predictable. Spring of 2019, for instance, set information for rainfall and chilly temperatures.

Many farmers who have been nonetheless recovering from the prior yr’s drought, discovered their fields overwhelmed with precipitation, so soggy they couldn’t plant the place they wanted to, situations which are occurring this year as properly. As Jill Agnew, of Willow Pond Farm says, “You don’t have any idea what’s coming. It’s hugely variable—way more than it used to be.”

On a cold day in March, Rob Johanson of Goranson Farm was ready for his fields to dry out. Goranson Farm likes to let some fields relaxation as a part of their crop rotation, however final yr, Johanson needed to scrap that plan as a result of the fields that needs to be resting have been the one ones that weren’t too moist to plant. Johanson grabbed a handful of soil to reveal how soggy it was; as he squeezed it right into a ball in his hand, water seeped out round his fingers.

“You don’t have any idea what’s coming. The weather is hugely variable—way more than it used to be.”

He needed to get his machines in to plant, he defined, however the soil was simply too moist. “Could we hand transplant? Yes. Does it make economic sense? No. So we wait,” he stated.

Surrounded by soggy fields, he switched gears and talked about how scorching the summers have been. Johanson joked that he spends his summer season trip irrigating. “We’ve had to invest a lot in being able to get water to plants, it’s been an increasing expense every year for us, to buy pumps, more pipe, and more time to move irrigation around the farm.”

Farmers are used to being thrifty, however the altering climate situations are requiring them to spend money on extra gear. In addition to the cash, there’s the extra labor concerned in organising irrigation infrastructure and constructing new storage services. The modifications hold piling up, as do the prices.


Gus Schultz digs within the carrot patch at King Hill Farm.

Fernandez factors out that every farm has to seek out the very best methods to fund these new investments. “There are important contrasts that become accentuated with the changing climate, like larger farms versus smaller operations, and the ability to secure capital for investments, who can afford what kind of insurance . . . all of that becomes increasingly important as they wrestle with this.” Farmers function on tight margins, so managing these added costs might be robust.

At King Hill Farm in Penobscot, Amanda Provencher remembers once they began farming 11 years in the past, they could have needed to irrigate as soon as in August or September, or under no circumstances. But recently there was a gradual development within the different course.

“One year it’s so dry and we’re like . . . ‘We’re setting up irrigation in July?’ And the next year it was June. And the last two or three years we have irrigated in April and May and that used to be the heaviest rainfall.” Like Tom Drew, she and her husband have had to purchase hay for his or her cows—a short-term answer.

King Hill is understood for its candy winter carrots, which they’ve at all times harvested within the fall and saved in a root cellar all through the winter. But Provencher defined that the basis cellar is not sufficient. “Four years ago we had to convert parts of the barn into coolers because the root cellar wasn’t getting cold enough and stuff was either rotting or getting soft,” she stated. While it could not seem to be a giant deal to place in cool storage or add some irrigation, each modifications signify the sorts of bills that farmers can’t essentially go on to shoppers.

Beyond altering temperatures and drought, there are different, extra refined shifts occurring within the fields and forests. Throughout Maine, maple sugaring season is a time to rejoice winter’s thaw, gathering buckets and boiling sap across the clock. The timing of maple sugaring season, although, has been steadily creeping earlier.


Irrigation pipes able to be arrange at King Hill Farm.

Rob Johanson, who has been making maple syrup for practically 40 years, used to have to begin gathering sap in March, however now he’s occupied with it in early February, or sooner. Indeed, according to the USDA, in 2001, the earliest sap circulation in Maine was on March 19. In 2018, it was February 1.

“Though there have been many changes on the farm over the years,” says Johanson. “This is the most recognizable shift.”

Blueberry farmers, too, are experiencing change. Although the prolonged heat temperatures Maine is experiencing might be helpful when it comes to an prolonged fall season, it additionally has implications for pests. The blueberry business has been dealing with a troublesome new one, the spotted winged drosophila, which is flourishing partly as a result of a much less predictable deep freeze within the winter.

At Blue Hill Berry Company in Blue Hill, Nicolas Lindholm cultivates 100 acres of natural blueberries. He finds that bugs and ailments have gotten extra seen, but additionally that the shifting seasons are serving to different native species thrive for an extended time period.

“With the last frost in the spring getting earlier and the first frost in the fall getting later, a lot of plants, even native plants like goldenrod, can keep going and going,” says Lindholm. He explains that these weeds have been in a position to “produce more seed, or get more photosynthesis and feed their roots, so even with the native wild plants, there is more competition with the blueberries.” This requires extra time weeding, to filter out house for the blueberries, at busy instances when fingers are wanted on different duties.


Nicolas Lindholm of Blue Hill Berry Company sees resilience within the genetic range of untamed blueberries. But he worries concerning the impacts of the more and more variable climate.

In addition to the goldenrod, Lindholm and his spouse, Maryann, have additionally observed another “odd activity” within the fall. Some crops appear to be reacting to false winters and blossoming. For the previous few years, he says, buds have been waking up following a protracted, heat fall, a chilly snap in late October, and a heat stretch in November.

“They think they’ve been through winter,” Lindholm explains. “Then of course they get frosted by real winter in December, and the buds are destroyed and the plants lose a lot of energy.” So far, Lindholm has solely observed this in a single specific species of untamed blueberry, but it surely appears ominous. The prolonged seasons, he says, “are throwing strange wrenches.”


Jill Agnew of Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus says that the modifications she has seen have gotten vastly financial. “You just don’t have any idea what’s coming,” she says.

In May at Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus, two staff have been selecting kale and spinach in an unheated greenhouse close to the farm stand whereas farmer Jill Agnew labored within the orchard. Agnew began Willow Pond Farm greater than 30 years in the past, and was the primary within the state to check out the group supported agriculture (CSA) mannequin.

She is a slight lady, nonetheless sporting her winter flannel as a result of it’s been such a cold spring. She talks about how her oregano crops, which normally winter over, died this yr. Following fluctuating fall temperatures, Agnew’s raspberries additionally took a significant hit.

Agnew sometimes doesn’t thoughts that issues are at all times shifting on the farm. “That’s why we like farming. You have to pay attention,” she says. “You have to learn and adapt every single year. But the changes are coming so fast, and the fact is it’s becoming hugely economic too.” Like so many others, she’s needed to spend money on hoop homes, change her planting schedule, and adapt.

The excellent news is that many Maine farmers are already working to become more resilient by rotating a various variety of crops, managing irrigation otherwise, and tilling their soil much less. As Agnew says, “That’s what we do—we adapt to changes.” She is working onerous to get a variety of natural matter into our soil, which has been proven to make soil behave like a sponge and cut back flooding along with storing carbon.

As an increasing number of analysis suggests hyperlinks between sustainable farming practices, local weather change mitigation, and farm resilience, insurance policies to advertise these practices are additionally spreading. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), launched the Agriculture Resilience Act this spring, exactly to higher perceive these linkages and assist farmers who need to use these practices to guard their farms.

As we flip and slowly stroll up towards the barn, Agnew says, “I’m feeling pretty resilient right now, pretty OK.” The grey of the day stays, however the rows of white apple blossoms, stark towards the darkish tree trunks, lead us on.

All images © Greta Rybus.