At NOFA conference, challenges of climate change addressed

Climate change is the greatest threat to Vermont agriculture, Gov. Peter Shumlin told participants at the annual Vermont National Organic Farmers Association conference at the University of Vermont on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. Photo by Audrey Clark.
Climate change is the greatest threat to Vermont agriculture, Gov. Peter Shumlin told participants at the annual Vermont National Organic Farmers Association conference at the University of Vermont on Saturday. Photo by Audrey Clark.

Gov. Peter Shumlin fingered climate change as the greatest threat to Vermont agriculture at the Vermont Northeast Organic Farmers Association conference on Saturday. Shumlin addressed a packed ballroom of farmers at the University of Vermont.

“We’ve got some challenges and we’re not going to deny them,” said Shumlin. “The difference between Vermont and the rest of the country is that we understand the biggest threat to the work that you’re doing is climate change.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. Peter Welch and Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross also spoke to the lunchtime crowd. While the conference was not focused on climate change, it was a recurring theme.

Sen. Leahy echoed the governor’s concern.

“The agriculture industry hopes that 2013 will bring calmer weather patterns. But I think they’re becoming the new normal,” said Leahy. “I think we have to adapt. We as a nation and the rest of the world have got to face up to the fact that climate change is real and that we have something to do with that. And we ought to show responsibility as a people, both in this country and around the world.”

Shumlin mentioned an invasive fruit fly, a pest that was discovered in Vermont in 2011, as an example of the challenges farmers now face.

“It’s got a cutting nose, kinda like mine, and it cuts into the green fruit, lays its eggs in the green fruit, in the blueberry, and as the fruit ripens, it does its breeding thing and you open up the blueberry and it’s nothing but a soggy mass of, uh, reproduction.”

Though the crowd laughed at Shumlin’s portrayal, pests like the spotted-wing drosophila (Drosophila suzukii) are a serious threat to crops. Scientists are concerned that invasive pests like these will have more time to reproduce and wreak havoc as winters gets shorter and warmer. (Incidentally, it’s not the nose, but part of the female’s reproductive anatomy that saws into the fruit.)

Among other concerns that farmers have about climate change are flooding and drought.

Sen. Patrick Leahy spoke to a packed ballroom of farmers at the NOFA-VT conference on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. Photo by Audrey Clark.
Sen. Patrick Leahy spoke to a packed ballroom of farmers at the NOFA-VT conference on Saturday. Photo by Audrey Clark.

Becky Maden, a farmer at the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington said she is “constantly panicking about climate change.”

Maden spoke at a session summarizing the science of climate change, solutions and farmers’ experiences. The conference also featured a daylong series of workshops on building farm resilience to climate change.

Carol Adair, an assistant professor of climate change and adaptation at UVM, spoke about the climate farmers can expect in 2050. She said Vermont will warm 3 degrees to 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The best hope is that Vermont in 2050 will have a climate like that of Pennsylvania. At worst, it will be like that of West Virginia. The worst-case scenario, based on current greenhouse gas emissions, is more likely.

Adair said farmers will have to juggle both droughts and extreme storms. Warm air holds more water vapor, which means it takes longer for water to build up in the air, but when the water is released, there’s more of it. That means storms will be less frequent but more intense. Between 1958 and 2007, there was a 67 percent increase in heavy precipitation in the Northeast. Most of the precipitation will fall in the winter as rain.

On the upside, the growing season in the region is increasing by 3.7 days per decade. And because the ocean is still absorbing heat, Adair said we’re seeing less warming now than we will in the future.

Although it’s not clear if the frequency of tropical storms and hurricanes is increasing, Adair said that it is abundantly clear that the power of those storms has intensified.

Farmers like Maden can attest to that. Her farm flooded during Tropical Storm Irene and lost thousands of dollars in equipment and crops. She also said her relationships with her customers and employees suffered because of the loss of harvests. Maden said her farm is already adapting to climate change. They’ve moved critical infrastructure, like a cooler, out of the path of floods.

They also acquired the land that formerly housed Intervale Compost. That land did not flood during Tropical Storm Irene and Maden and her co-workers are hoping the plot will provide some financial stability if other areas do flood. She would never have considered farming that land prior to Irene because the soil is heavily compacted and in need of remediation. Now, what was formerly a wasteland is looking like a lifeboat, she says.

What farmers can do

At the conference, Maden asked scientists to help farmers learn how to respond to climate change. Ernesto Mendez, an associate professor of plant and soil science at UVM, responded by asking what farmers needed to know. What followed was a creative brainstorming session on farmers’ climate change concerns:

• Whether it is worth building berms and levees to protect farm fields from flooding.
• What kind of new flood patterns to expect, both in terms of timing and location.
• How to use stream gauges to know when flooding will hit.
• What to plant along streams to reduce flooding and pollution.
• How to inexpensively and effectively test soil for contamination before and after flooding.
• Which crops can tolerate “wet feet” as well as extended droughts.
• Which invasive pests are on their way to Vermont and how to handle them.

Other considerations are social, like working with neighbors to reduce pollution from upstream sources during floods, or sharing resources during emergencies.

Maden and her fellow farmers are also looking for ways to reduce their effect on the climate. Intervale Community Farm recently had an energy audit, which she says was critical in reducing their use of propane to heat the greenhouse in the winter. Prior to the audit, she hadn’t considered heating the greenhouse to be a major energy sink. It turned out to be their greatest.

“We had a little science behind it and it changed everything,” she said.

Vern Grubinger, a professor at UVM agricultural extension, said there are ways farmers can reduce emissions — and make a living.

“As far as Vermont goes, we’re in a pretty nice place because we won’t be underwater,” he joked. “We have a greater responsibility to think harder and do more.”

Grubinger said he often comes away from climate change talks “feeling depressed and overwhelmed.” Many people, he said, understand the impact of climate change but aren’t motivated to take action. He believes the way to help people to adapt is to avoid scare tactics and “trying to ram the whole thing down their throats.”

Grubinger suggests that farmers “find the things that will resonate” with others. In this way, farmers can get the support of people who want to shop at the farmer’s market, or buy cruelty-free products. Farmers themselves can take action against climate change, he said, while also strengthening their farms.

For example, Grubinger said rotating crops reduces the need for expensive fertilization and tilling, both of which release of carbon into the atmosphere. Expanding markets to local schools is good for the farmer’s wallet, good for child nutrition, and good for the climate. Switching to value-added products, like artisanal cheese, reduces the number of cows a dairy farmer raises — thereby reducing methane emissions.

In fact, Ross, the secretary of Agriculture, said that Vermont is now one of the top regions in the world for artisanal cheese.

“You sell cheese to France now,” he said. “Think about that.”

Likewise, Welch spoke in favor of locally grown food.

“If you don’t have to transport your crop 1,500 miles, just think of what that does in saved transportation costs, not to mention reducing your carbon footprint,” he said.

But Grubinger warned, little research has been done to confirm whether things that are good for, say, child nutrition or animal welfare are also good for the climate. Nonetheless, he is confident that when people take action on issues that matter it has a rippling effect.

Indeed, Ross spoke to the lunchtime crowd about working together as a community, across divisions of belief and practice. He said organic farmers have to work with conventional farmers, dairy with non-dairy farmers, value-added manufacturers with raw producers.

“We cannot afford to let those divisions divide us,” said Ross. “We need everybody in the game in the state of Vermont if we’re going to advance agriculture and support the communities that we need and want.”

Ross did not mention climate change during his speech; he identified water quality as the greatest threat to Vermont agriculture.

All of the speakers expressed pride in Vermont’s agricultural community.

Ross enumerated the ways Vermont is a leader in agriculture: maple syrup, dairy, direct marketing, farm-to-school, farm-to-institution, food hubs, biodigesting, farmland conservation, and maintaining a working landscape.

“It’s what makes living in Vermont wonderful,” Ross affirmed.

“I know that the country considers Vermont a leader in these issues,” said Leahy.

Shumlin also gave farmers a pat on the back.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. With you we’ll get it done,” said Shumlin at the close of his speech. “I’m proud to be your governor. I’m more proud of the work you’re doing to ensure that our ag future is a bright one and that we’re showing the rest of the country how food ought to be eaten, grown, and how it results in a healthy life. Best quality of life in the country. You’re the reason. Keep it up.”

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Audrey Clark

About Audrey

Audrey Clark writes articles on climate change and the environment for VTDigger, including the monthly column Landscape Confidential. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in conservation biology from Prescott College in Arizona, she worked as a field ecology research assistant and college teaching assistant for five years. Among her adventures during that period, Audrey identified tiny flowers while kneeling on the burning ground in the Mojave Desert in the summer, interviewed sea turtle poachers in Africa, and tracked wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. Audrey began studying the nature of Vermont in 2010 and received her master’s of science from the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist Program in 2012. She has worked as a freelance environmental journalist since then. She also works at UVM’s Pringle Herbarium, where she handles 100-year-old plant specimens. Audrey is learning fiddle and scientific illustration and lives in Burlington with her partner, cat, several dozen guppies, a few shrimp, and too many snails.

Email: [email protected]

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  • James Maroney

    The message Governor Shumlin and Secretary Chuck Ross give to organic farmers is entirely different than the message they play out for conventional farmers. Climate change surely will affect us all but apparently the governor and the secretary do not know that organic farmers are addressing climate change and water quality, which Shumlin never mentioned. Conventional farmers, which Ross wants to keep in the game, are doing neither. “Do not let these divisions divide us” suggests that there is no difference between the two modalities when in fact the distinction was the point of the NOFA conference. Organic agriculture controls production to keep prices up; it applies no petroleum-based herbicides or fertilizers residues from which flow into the lake; it supports the green Vermont brand. The state’s explicit support for conventional agriculture supports over production, which drives low milk prices, which drives farm attrition, which drives rural economic decay, lake pollution and the profligate consumption of petroleum. “Do not let these divisions divide us” but perhaps the governor and his secretary of agriculture would sit down with organic farmers to learn why they do and why Vermont must.

  • Gov. Shumlin can lead Vermont in reducing our impact on climate change by reminding folks of Act 148, which calls for all organic materials to be diverted from landfills, starting in 2014 for large generators, but for everyone including residents by 2020.

    By keeping our food scraps, yard waste and other organics out of landfills, we eliminate the creation of methane gas, one of the most destructive greenhouse gasses, and a huge contributor to climate change. Even with systems that generate electricity from methane captured in landfill, anywhere from 20 – 50 percent of the gas still escapes into the atmosphere. This is a very concrete step that all Vermonters can take to prevent further environmental damage from the resources we toss into the trash.

  • Also- The important potential for tree crops as carbon-negative and flood resilient strategies was discussed in separate sessions.

    Willow Crossing Farm in Johnson, VT is growing 1000s of trees along the banks of the Lamoille River not only to improve water quality and stabilize soil, but also trees which provide valuable crops themselves (fruits, nuts, timber, sugar), and of course sequester atmospheric carbon and better withstand irregular weather patterns.

    You can read about it here: http://prospectrockpermaculture.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/feb-17-branch-out-burlington-keynote-on-willow-crossing-farm/

  • If the Governor is so concerned about climate change, why on earth would he allow 4 biomass plants in the state of Vermont.
    We have 2 now, one on the way to N. Springfield,( only 26.1 % efficient by the way ) and another in the works.According to the ANR ( agency of natural resources ) Air permit Division, the North Springfield project is considered a “major source of air pollution and a major source of acid rain”.According to the developer’s own application the facility will release 1,176 tons of greenhouse gas per day. That’s 429,000 tons per year and 21.5 million tons over the plant’s 50 year lifespan . Research by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences revealed in 2010 that burning woody biomass generates more carbon dioxide than coal or natural gas plants of equal size.
    I did not know these things were even allowed in the state.They come in the back doors of towns all over the country because of lingering subsidies and the businesses that choose to exploit them.They are being stopped as they did in Mass. , by citizens rising up and speaking out.
    You have the American Lung Association, The American Heart Association speaking out against biomass burning for electricity. The list is too long to print.
    Our president has mentioned more that once , we need to make decisions for the future generations when we consider energy going forward. Did you not hear him Governor !
    Not to mention the wood consumption , traffic from tractor trailers – this plant alone 100-240 tractor trailers traveling in and out of the plant and through surrounding small towns daily for 50 years. Talk about fuel consumption,health and safety? for 26.1 % efficiency?
    It’s 2013 , get these things out of what would be considered renewable energy.
    Please – do your homework. I know our town did not and we are fighting this all the way. A decision about our health and safety was made for us NOT by us and I fully intend to help in whatever little way I can to stop them from being built anywhere, not just here in my town.
    Governor, what a moment to set a precedent.We have two of the these archaic incinerators – please stop the next two and show the country you really are the ” green ” governor you say you are.

  • Gayle Morabito, here are some others from Montpelier that you can add to your list of government officials who act before doing their homework.

    Co-Chairs of the House Climate Caucas, Rep. Chris Pearson and Margaret Cheney recently co-sponsored H. 271, a bill proposing that Vermont divest its $3.5 billion public employee & teacher retirement funds of all portfolio holdings related to fossil fuel production, refining and marketing. The apparent purposes of this legislation is to financially cripple fossil fuel companies while sending a message to the world that Vermont is for clean air.

    From what was reported in the press, it appeared that the Governor’s Office, the State Treasurer and the Vermont public employees union were not that enthusiastic about H. 271. If I were a state employee or teacher, I certainty wouldn’t be happy if politicians were risking my retirement funds on such a boondoggle.

    I wrote to Rep. Pearson and Cheney asking: If they are really interested in improving Vermont’s air quality, what do they propose to do about the environmental threat posed by the proposed Springfield bio-mass plant. A plant that will require an endless number of CO2 absorbing trees to be cut to operate and then belch out tons of CO2 and other noxious gases into our air.

    Rep. Pearson wrote back to me saying that he hadn’t dug into the Springfield bio-mass issue, but hoped to do so. Rep. Cheney did not respond to my e-mail. Nice, we should all be comforted by the completeness of their work before putting state employee retirement funds into potential jeopardy.

    When will our leaders in Montpelier break free of the corrupting influences of lobbyists, wind turbine and bio-mass developers and do what’s really right for improving clean air?

    Thanks to Vtdigger, those in Montpelier may be beginning to hear the footsteps of common sense.

  • Thank you Peter Yankowski !
    We all need to do our homework to keep up with what is going on. I never thought such decisions that negatively affect our health and safety could be made in this way. No vote , no discussion with the community – one public forum where we could pose concerns , but not get any answers. No one was permitted to speak to us , just listen.

    A few little overlooked details did get addressed following that meeting- a citizen brought up the fact that Springfield’s water supply would be compromised ( that hadn’t occurred to anyone ) oh , and by the way there is an airport up the street. What about the height of the smokestack on the plant? Oh , well hadn’t thought about that either? We’ll just lower it . Now the smoke and all it’s poisons can float directly into the windows of surrounding homes before continuing to float over and layer pollutants on our farms, streams ,and into our kids lungs. Absolutely no comments on the truck routes the freight train of tractor trailers are supposed to take to get to and from this plant as of yet. The surrounding towns might like to know that bit of information. Anyone do any studies before this decision was made?

    What century is this?

    We all need to attend the next town meeting in Springfield, all of us from all over Vermont.Monday , March 4th,7:30 PM, Springfield High School.
    We are all invited aren’t we?