Extreme weather forces valley farmers to adapt

Ben Clark of Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield examines buds on peach trees in his family’s orchard.

Ben Clark of Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield examines buds on peach trees in his family’s orchard. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Annalise Clausen waters beets at Astarte Farm in Hadley.

Annalise Clausen waters beets at Astarte Farm in Hadley. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By TANISHA BHAT

For the Gazette

Published: 05-11-2024 3:50 PM

Ben Clark, the owner of Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, received $120,000 from the $20 million Natural Disaster Recovery Program created last year after he lost the entirety of his peach crop and 70% of his apples and pears due to sudden cold temperatures.

“Every year is challenging, but the last few in particular have been pretty difficult. Last year just with the wetness in general, but on top of that we’ve had those freeze and frost events,” Clark said.

Rather than just using the grant to recoup his losses, Clark invested in his farm by purchasing a fan that prevents frost forming on the plants by mixing warmer air from above with the colder air at ground level and blowing it across the crops.

“The grant was meant just to help out our operation but we’re expecting more extreme events and we know that we’ll need to do more. I just felt it was a wise decision,” he said.

More and more farmers in recent years have been installing machinery and finding ways to protect their crops from worsening and fluctuating weather conditions like increased moisture levels, sudden temperature drops and milder winters.

“We really do see climate change as an existential threat and farms are going to have to make big changes in order to keep their businesses going,” said Claire Morenon, communications manager for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, a nonprofit working in the Connecticut River Valley for the past 30 years to support local farms.

She noted that last year’s weather disasters were in line with what climate scientists and forecasters predicted for the region — less consistency as the seasons change.

Freeze and moisture dangers

Massachusetts has 7,083 farms that generate $607 million in annual sales, according to the 2022 state census. It also is the second leading producer of cranberries nationwide after Wisconsin.

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Last year, western Massachusetts experienced a hard freeze Feb. 4 when temperatures dropped to minus-14 and another freeze May 18 when temperatures dropped to 29 overnight, according to the National Weather Service. Freezes are especially dangerous because they can damage flower buds and prevent fruit from growing.

Jon Clements, an extension tree fruit specialist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who specializes in apples, said significant fluctuations in temperature are harmful to perennial plants and fruit trees that are outside year-round.

“We want the apple trees to go to sleep during the winter,” Clements said. “With milder winters, the apple trees may wake up a little early, and then if we get a significant cold in the spring that subjects it to freeze damage. That’s arguably kind of what happened last year.”

Drastic changes in moisture levels also can be detrimental to crops. From June to August 2022, most of Massachusetts was declared to be experiencing a “critical drought” with less than six inches of rainfall, according to the state’s drought management task force. However, it was followed by extreme rain last summer, with July receiving almost 10 inches of downpour, causing extreme floods.

“Historically, we expect rain regularly throughout the summer in New England. But getting no rain and then last year having almost continuous rain and then flooding was really stressful and damaging to crops,” said Ellen Drews, farm manager of Astarte Farm, a USDA-certified organic farm in Hadley.

Too much rain can cause floods and saturate the soil by filling air pockets with water, causing roots to suffocate or stop growing altogether. Drews said the extra moisture last year never dried off and caused diseases to develop in their squash, tomatoes, strawberries, chard and beets.

“It can be really impactful because you work just as hard to get all these crops planted and taken care of and then you have less food to show for it at the end of the year which can be pretty demoralizing,” Drews said.

‘Harder to farm’

Connie Adams and her husband John Keilch own Yellow Stonehouse Farm in Westfield, a USDA-certified organic farm that grows vegetables, herbs and flowers.

“It’s harder to farm because of the weather,” Adams said. “Another reason why food is so expensive is because it’s so hard to grow. It’s more labor, it takes longer and it’s scarce because of the destruction of crops.”

One approach Yellow Stonehouse Farm has taken to protect its crops is growing some under high tunnels — covered structures that protect plants from severe weather. It also allows farmers to extend their growing seasons by creating favorable conditions to start growing earlier in spring, later into the fall and in some cases year-round.

“We have three [high tunnels] now. We’ve been installing one every couple of years since about 2016 and we’ve just ordered another one,” Adams said. “Crops that we know are really susceptible to problems due to too much moisture, we grow them in the high tunnels.”

As more weather events have occurred in recent years, lawmakers are figuring out ways to better support farmers and the agriculture industry.

Last fall, Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, and Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton introduced a bill to establish a disaster relief fund to reduce the financial burden on communities, businesses and residents affected by natural disasters. The language of the bill was incorporated into Gov. Maura Healey’s budget proposal as a permanent emergency disaster relief fund.

“I’m happy to say not one farmer affected by the floods has gone out of business, which is a miracle. I’m very glad the funds that we appropriated helped but we need to do more,” Comerford said. “The farmers who are feeding us are saying that their jobs are getting harder and harder and they’re worried that they will become unsustainable as a result of this.”

Massachusetts Department of Agriculture Resources Commissioner Ashley Randle said the Climate Smart Agriculture Program, which combines three grant programs for water, energy, and climate grants, is “consistently oversubscribed” as more farmers facing the impacts of climate change are applying.

“Through our grant program, farmers are able to invest in equipment such as no tillage equipment, that really helps with the soil health and preserving the carbon in the soil,” Randle said. “That’s been one of the signature ways that we’ve been able to support farms in terms of climate impacts.”

She added that many farms have reported using their grant funds to invest in greenhouses and other infrastructure to protect their farms from the elements.

“We recognize that climate change impacts are becoming more frequent and more severe for our farms,” Randle said. “The grant programs have all been helpful to the farming community in their resiliency and ability to mitigate against climate change.”

Farmers emphasized the importance of continued support from the state and local communities to continue their operations despite the increasing challenges.

“It’s important for people to recognize that their farmers are all working really hard, but it’s just getting harder,” Adams said. “I think the support that the state has been providing farmers in Massachusetts is really important. It’s a more critical time than ever to continue that support because it’s harder to farm.”

Tanisha Bhat writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.