Farming has always been a risky and unpredictable way to make a living, and according to researchers at the University of Maine in Orono, fluctuating weather conditions associated with climate change are only adding to the unpredictability.
“Farmers have always had to deal with weather and changing conditions,” said Dr. Eric Gallandt, professor of weed ecology at the University of Maine. “The [climate change] projections are that things are only going to get more variable.”
Gallandt is part of a team sharing in a $500,000, three-year United States Agriculture and Food research grant looking at how to develop the tools and informational resources to help Maine’s small and medium-sized farms better cope with climate-change related issues.
The University of Maine is sharing the USDA Food Research Initiative Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities: Small and Medium-Sized Farms program grant with researchers at the University of Vermont, which is looking at other areas in New England.
The University of Maine team was awarded $213,000 of the grant funds.
Changing weather patterns
“Farmers are seeing the effects of climate change right now,” Gallandt said. “It used to be one of the great things in Maine that we had this great growing season where you could rely on timely rain over the season.”
Over the past several years, Gallandt said, farmers have seen a change in that pattern.
“If you look at total [rain] we are getting as much as we ever did,” he said. “But it’s not coming at the right time.”
More and more Maine farmers are dealing with drought conditions, Gallandt said.
“Maybe 20 years ago you did not need irrigation on your farm,” he said, “But now more and more farmers are irrigating during crucial periods of the growing season.”
Working with the farmers
The USDA grand funds will allow Gallandt and his team to meet one-on-one with farmers from around Maine to get a sense of what sorts of issues climate change is creating on the farms.
“We are really talking about farmers dealing with increasingly dramatic fluctuations in weather events,” said Tori Jackson, educator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and research team member. “I spend a lot of time working with beginning farmers and there is an opportunity here to help them make decisions so they are able to plan for climate change issues.”
Among those weather fluctuations are droughts, heavy rain and wind storms, sudden spring freeze-ups and warmer end of season conditions, Jackson said.
“There is virtually no farmer in Maine who should not be concerned about climate change,” Jackson said. “Irrigation is a big one — they need to be thinking how to get water to livestock or crops as what used to be dependable water sources dry up year after year.”
Information gathered through interviewing farmers and determining what they are facing as the Maine climate changes, will help the team formulate a solid plan for those and future farmers.
These farmers, according to Gallandt, are looking for credible information on how to best manage their farms under those changing conditions.
Looking for solutions
“Adapting to a changing climate will require specialized outreach efforts and resources to ensure continued farm viability,” he said. “We want to provide farmer with backup plans so when things like droughts or major crop-impacting weather fluctuations occur, those crops won’t be damaged.”
Changes in storage techniques, irrigation, use of greenhouses, crop rotation and considering different crops are among the strategies that could help farmers, Gallandt said.
Rather than the team of researchers sitting around a table and discussing the climate change trends, Gallandt said they will go out and talk to the farmers on the ground to get a sense of what they are dealing with.
“Right now we are working on a model on how best to engage those farmers,” he said. “By understanding our stakeholders before we start developing those educational materials and strategies will be more on point for what they need.”
Gallandt said the team is in the early stages of developing the questions they want to ask farmers and hope to ge out talking to them by the first of the year.
The team will then spend next summer looking at the responses and spend six months to a year developing those strategies and plans to help farmers deal with climate change.
“Farmers need to be prepared for continued climate change,” Jackson said. “We want to help them have plans in place to meet these changes.”
Working on the UMaine team with Gallandt and Jackson are Dr. Adam Daigneault with the school of forest resources and graduate students Sonja Birthisel and Ruth Sexton.
The team is collaborating with the USDA Northeast Climate Hub, Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, the Beginning Farmer Resource Network of Maine, University of Vermont’s New Farmer Project, the Women’s Agricultural Network and the Institute for Social and Economic Development.