With heat waves, unpredictable weather, and soil degradation, climate change threatens local farmers ​

This piece was written by Rebecca Huang, our 2021 Yale Presidential Public Service Fellow

Local vendor Rae Moore at CitySeed’s Downtown Farmers’ Market

It’s August, and vendors at CitySeed Downtown Farmers’ Markets are looking up at the cloudy sky, concerned. It’s a familiar story — this past year, farmers have been dealing with a host of climate-related issues, starting with an unusually dry spring, and an extraordinarily wet summer.

“This makes me a little nervous, this weather now,” Kaitlyn Kimball — a farmer from Naugatuck’s Sunset Farm — said in an interview with CitySeed, referring to the 70 degree August day. “Is it going to be 90 [degrees] in September, or what’s going to happen? We’ll just have to see.” 

This unpredictability has been plaguing farmers for seasons now, and it’s in large part due to climate change. Although Connecticut may be one of the smallest states in America, with its 5,521 farms — a 60 percent increase from just two decades ago — The Constitution State has a large agricultural presence. 

According to the recently released 2021 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change is undeniably the result of human activity, and has resulted in rapid changes to the atmosphere, biosphere, ocean, and cryosphere. Farmers, who depend so heavily on weather patterns and nature, are often the first to be hit. 

Climate change most noticeably appears at the coastline. As a coastal city, many of New Haven’s farmers are already face to face with the grim reality of global warming. The EPA reported that the average precipitation in the Northeast increased by ten percent between 1895 and 2011, a trend that has only continued to rise, and rainfall from extreme storms has increased 70 percent since 50 years ago.  

Human activity, such as filling wetlands, accounts for the destruction of about one third of New England’s coastal wetlands since the early 1800s. All of this means that both flooding and droughts are likely to happen more frequently, and for longer periods of time.

These changes have implications that stretch all the way down the food supply chain, drastically impacting farmers and consumers alike. This summer, rainfall as a result of Tropical Storm Elsa has left many farmers stranded in the mud. “We had nine inches of rain in July,” Kimball said. “Normally it’s like one inch.”

Kaitlyn Kimball on Wednesday at the Downtown Farmers’ Market

It isn’t the first time that extreme climate has wreaked havoc on farms — in fact, stories about climate disasters are becoming all too common. Global warming is making water availability more unpredictable. Warmer air has more moisture, so extreme storms become much wetter and much more severe. On the opposite end, changing wind patterns and heat-enhanced evaporation from the soil are making other areas suffer from extreme drought.

Connecticut’s $70 million dairy industry, which provides 13 percent of the state’s farm revenue, will be hit hard by the heat and drought. Rising temperatures cause cows to eat less, leave them more vulnerable to disease, reduce their fertility, and reduce their milk production, according to the EPA. Indirectly, pasture will also be impacted by droughts, which can threaten pasture and feed supply. 

“It is the pasture itself that suffers from the weather extremes,” Rodger Phillips, from Sub-Edge Farm in Avon and Farmington, said. Phillips is a meat farmer who has dealt with the reality of climate change for nearly a decade, a reality that he said has been difficult to adjust to. “We went from the severe drought last year, where we had an abysmal hay harvest and had to rely on hay brought in, to the flooding that we had this year … which cut off oxygen to the pasture plants, killing them.” 

Climate change impacts farmer pricing

Globally, decreased access to food will correspond to spikes in food prices as a result of crop destruction, expensive transportation, and increasingly costly means of production. Consumers may see their produce become more expensive as farmers take financial hits due to unpredictable growing conditions. 

For now, Kimball is still trying to maintain the same level of pricing as previous years, in line with Sunset Farm’s mission to make organic food accessible. However, she is unsure how long this can last. 

Phillips expressed similar sentiments for his meat products. “We are often hesitant to raise prices alongside rising feed costs so we operate our meat and egg enterprise with very close margins,” he said. “At some point we know we will need to adjust prices.” Food accessibility is not only restricted by increased costs, but also by reduced availability. Sub-Edge Farm, for example, lost their flock of turkeys in the recent storm.

Other farmers have already been forced to adjust their prices, but are concerned about consumer education regarding price changes. For some customers, price fluctuations can appear arbitrary, frustrating, and confusing. However, farmers must take into account the cost of labor, costs associated with climate change and greener practices, as well as consumer needs.

“We’re not just raising our prices,” Stephanie Berluti of South Haven Farm said in an interview with CitySeed. “There needs to be a little bit more customer awareness or consumer education around the fact that [climate change] is something that the farmers are taking into consideration.”

Climate change is revealing serious structural inequalities within the food system. In an interview with Eos, Ángel G. Muñoz, a research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, said “Climate impacts are triggers, not the main drivers.” Food security, Muñoz said, has as much to do with equity and economic stability as agriculture. 

Clean food should be a right, but as climate change ravages the earth, this access will grow more limited. Dollars will not stretch as far to buy food, especially for those who are already marginalized by the food system and face increased physical barriers, such as a lack of access to transportation. CitySeed’s Double Value Coupon Program and SNAP (food stamp) Benefits aim to ameliorate the food gap, but this will not be enough to fend off food insecurity without a tidal shift to sustainable agriculture.

Potential solutions: sustainable agriculture and resilient local food systems

Local farmers are finding ways to fight back against climate change through changes in infrastructure and sustainable practices. Organic farming methods that eliminate pesticide use, no-till farming, and drip irrigation can go a long way towards rehabilitating the soil.

One way that farmers are reacting to climate change is by changing the way they plant, and what they plant. Rae Moore, owner of The Traveling Farmer, picks different varieties of crops depending on whether it is a drought year or a wet year. 

“I already have heat resistant lettuces for instance that I grow only in the summer so I might rely on those more heavily [during a dry, hot year],” Moore said in an interview with CitySeed. “Or I’d pick a variety of spinach that’s more resistant to a Fusarium wilt.”

Moore notes that the ability to choose between different varieties with different traits is an invaluable tool for any farmer, and that diversification will prove critical against disease and pest vulnerability, weather, and unexpected crop failure. Kimball is taking up another coping strategy at Sunset Farm, using hoop houses and succession planting — planting in multiple rounds — in case of crop death. 

Berluti has turned to infrastructure to reduce the unstable element of weather during the growing season. “Usually farmers will start their plants outdoors in a greenhouse in the springtime,” Berluti said. “I’ve decided to do a lot of my starts indoors where I can really control temperature, all the growing factors there.”

Stephanie Berluti sells produce at the Downtown Farmers’ Market

To deal with the rising temperatures, She has also bought shade cloth to protect her fruits and vegetables from scorching heat, and is hoping to invest in more high tunnels, all with the aim of better controlling the growing environment. Kimball predicts that For meat farms, other methods of dealing with temperature rises may include a switch to raising heat-tolerant livestock, such as sheeps, pigs, and goats instead of cows and chickens. 

As weather becomes less reliable, farmers may have to move indoors or to controlled environments, perhaps permanently. “I think in 5 or 10 years probably most of our food will be grown in tunnels, just because the weather’s getting so unpredictable,” Kimball predicted.

None of these methods are easy, quick, or cheap, and there is still a lot of progress to be made. Luckily, farmers have been able to turn to each other, and to local agencies like National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and USDA, which both offer aid in case of crop or infrastructure damage as a result of storms, for support. 

“Just being in communication with farmers to see how they’re dealing with it but also to talk it out and know that you’re not alone and that other people are struggling with this as well is helpful,” said Berluti. 

As climate change shows no signs of slowing down, the onus is on both farmers and consumers to make changes that will ensure a greener future for the earth. Shopping locally is an important way to support local, small farms, to offset transportation emissions and costs, and to ensure transparency in sustainable farming practices.

For Moore, the key word is resiliency. “I think the best thing you can do as somebody who farms organically is … working on living soil that has lots of microorganisms, that has good water holding capacity in case there’s a drought year,” Moore said. “That sort of thing is how farmers are going to be able to adapt: to have a resilient system.” 

To support a resilient local food system, and the farmers featured in this article, you can stop by one of CitySeed’s Farmers’ Markets, located in Wooster Square, Edgewood Park, or Downtown. Visit www.cityseed.org/farmers-markets for more information.