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UVM agriculture expert on the spring weather outlook for farmers

Apples comprise a large slice of Vermont's agriculture industry.
Apples comprise a large slice of Vermont's agriculture industry.

It’s early in the growing season, but the weather has already challenged Vermont farmers. 

They’ve faced extreme temperature swings where it’s hot one day and cool the next — something increasingly common with climate change. 

To learn more about this year’s conditions and how farmers are adjusting, VPR’s Grace Benninghoff spoke with Joshua Faulkner, the Farming and Climate Change Program coordinator with the University of Vermont Extension. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joshua Faulkner: Honestly, there is no normal anymore with climate change. Used to be that farmers could expect to plant at a certain time, and fertilize at a certain time and harvest at a certain time — all that's out the window. Now, everyone just has to be much more vigilant and watch the current conditions, and not work by calendar.

Joshua Faulkner
Joshua Faulkner

But I will say that this season, in general, has been much less volatile than past seasons, possibly with the exception of temperature. We've seen some really dramatic swings from days where it's over 90 degrees to a day or two later, where we're we're back down in the 50s. It's been really dramatic in that sense. And it seems like that's really defined the spring, the growing season so far. That we've started kind of cool, and then we had some really hot days. And then we went back to cool, and it's just been up and down.

Grace Benninghoff: So when we're talking about temperatures really swinging between hot and cool, like you talked about this spring, how does that impact farmers and the food they grow?

Those growing field crops, those grazing — there's not a tremendous impact on them at this point. But for vegetable growers, it can lead to really being concerned about late frosts, damage to plants that aren't quite hardy and toughened up and ready for those temperatures that have just been planted. And then also extreme heat in some of the indoor growing structures like greenhouses and high tunnels that you would not be expecting this early in the season. So you might not be ready to ventilate or to open things up like you would be later on in July and August. It's keeping farmers on their toes and really needing to be vigilant and just prepared for those swings.

Can you tell me a little bit about how these changing weather patterns impact crop yields?

It's much less of a threat at this point in the growing season because it is so early. But if we start seeing really hot temperatures later on in the summer, we can certainly see impact on yield, — especially when those temperature swings are accompanied by swings in rainfall as well.

Earlier, you said that there is no normal anymore with climate change. Can you dive into that a little bit more and explain what you mean?

So it used to be that farmers knew that they would always plant on a certain date. Because of how much the climate has changed, that's no longer the situation with growers. We may be able to plant much earlier or because of really wet conditions we'll be forced to plant much later.

I think the defining characteristic of climate change in Vermont is really the uncertainty. That speaks directly to that issue of there's no more normal. We may see the wettest May on record, followed by the driest July on record in the same year. And it's just that complete uncertainty and departure from what used to be expected.

So it's sort of like learning to farm all over again in a brand new climate?

Yeah, which is really disheartening for those who have been farming for 30 or 40 or more years. It definitely takes more mental agility to deal with those types of swings. But farmers are resilient by nature.

How are Vermont farmers adjusting to climate change? Is it mostly just changing planting times and being really vigilant about the weather? Are they growing different crops now as the climate changes?

Yeah, there's a number of things that they're doing. They are growing different crops. They are growing different varieties of the same crop — varieties that are more accustomed to being grown a little bit further south, like in the mid-Atlantic. Varieties that are more common to Maryland and Pennsylvania are making their way up here to Vermont — and not just varieties but crops as well.

Vegetable farmers, in particular, investing in infrastructure, things like high tunnels, greenhouses. Tunnels used to be used primarily to extend the season to get started earlier and go later into the fall. But now a lot of farmers are using them to protect against heavy downpours and just really wet conditions that lead to disease. The other thing I see a lot of: more and more farmers are investing in irrigation because of the recent droughts we've we've seen here in Vermont. We're a water-rich state but now we're seeing more and more drought. Farmers are making that investment and putting in irrigation systems, where many could get by without them in the past.

In a longer-term context, if we keep seeing these extreme weather patterns, as we expect to with climate change, how will that impact Vermont consumers? People going to the farmers market or grocery store for local produce.

I personally think and hope that it ultimately leads to more local food on our shelves and our grocery stores. Because when we think about climate change in Vermont, we also need to kind of turn around to look outside of Vermont — what's happening in other food-producing regions. A state like California, climate change is really affecting them. And that is potentially limiting the amount of food that we may see moving into Vermont from other places. And so that then really, in some ways, opens a door for more local food to be produced, and by necessity. And because there's a little bit more stability here because we are a water-rich state, we aren't going to face extreme drought that some other parts of the country will face, like the Southwest and California.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with Grace Benninghoff @gbenninghoff1.

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