One of Bartlett Farms' potato fields located by Littleton's Foxcroft road shown in September 2020. The long drought period in Aroostook County has made the soil dry and reduced overall potato production. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

Climate change has lengthened Maine’s growing season by two weeks on average over the last century, a trend that’s expected to continue as temperatures increase. Meanwhile, big weather events such as rain and wind storms are increasing as well, and new forest and agricultural pests are gaining more of a foothold in the state than ever before.

To unpack what climate change means for Maine farms and forests, the Bangor Daily News hosted a virtual event on Nov. 12, bringing together four experts to share their work on the topic. The webinar was the last of four BDN Climate Conversations, which will help shape our coverage of climate issues.

The conversations brought together experts from the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute and local subject matter experts.

During the event, which drew 90 people, attendees posed questions about climate change in relation to Maine farms and forests to the panelists. Here are some of their biggest questions.

Alice Bolstridge of Presque Isle: Did the drought we had this summer have anything to do with climate change?

It’s likely that climate change contributed to the drought, but we don’t know how much.

“Almost everything about our weather has to do with climate change, but for any single event, it’s hard to say: it’s just climate change,” said Ivan Fernandez, professor at the University of Maine, School of Forest Resources and Climate Change Institute. “It’s almost never just climate change.”

Paloma Soriano of Penobscot: I am curious to learn more about invasive species located more on the coastline. Do you have recommendations on resources to learn more about this topic and/or projects to get involved in?

To stay up to date about invasive species in Maine, sign up for the Maine Forest Service newsletters. Also, you can find news about invasive species and information about talks and other events about invasive species on the Maine Invasive Species Network website. The Maine Invasive Species Network annual meeting, which will be virtual in 2021 and open to the public, is scheduled for the mornings of Feb. 23 and 24.

Sam Brown of Parkman: Can you discuss the carbon implications of converting forestland (soils) to [agricultural land]?

Maine’s forests sequester more than 60 percent of our annual carbon emissions. When a forest is cleared for agricultural land or development, that carbon goes back up into the atmosphere, said Mike Parisio, forest entomologist with the Maine State Forest Service. Much of that carbon is stored in the soil of a forest. When disturbed, the soil loses carbon.

”A high priority in Maine is to retain [forestland],” Parisio said. “Let’s not mess up a good thing. We’re 89 percent forested … We lose about 10,000 acres [of forestland] a year to conversion.”

Most of that 10,000 acres of forestland a year is lost due to development — the construction of buildings — not through conversion to farmland, said Ellen Mallory, professor at the UMaine School of Food and Agriculture and UMaine Cooperative Extension.

Michael San Filippo of Lynbrook, NY: Has Maine always been net growth in forest cover? Was there a point in the recent past when that wasn’t the case? I would think that there might have been a time, when the lumbering and paper industry were booming, when forest growth was net negative.

Maine experienced a period of net loss in forest growth during the last outbreak of spruce budworm, a pest that kills spruce and fir trees, in the 1970s and 80s, Parisio said.

“Maine, having a very resilient forest and suitable climate for growing trees, rebounded from that relatively quickly,” he said. “In modern history, we’ve usually been in the clear for net growth.”

Marijo Lewandowski of Glendale, NY: Can you please talk to regenerative agriculture by defining it as well as talking about it as a viable and scalable solution to mitigate climate change.

Regenerative agriculture is defined as “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle,” according to Regeneration International, a nonprofit organization that promotes regenerative agriculture internationally.

“Soil health is the underpinning of both [sustainable agriculture and regenerative agriculture],” said Mallory. “Soil health can really help us in both the mitigation and resilience in climate change.”

Tom Gordon of Augusta: Where can people get more information and technical information on soil health practices?

Here are links to information about soil health:

Haydée Foreman of Blue Hill: What can a (MOFGA certified) blueberry land owner do to mitigate climate impact and protect from drought and other climate impacts?

Improving soil health is one way that farmers can protect against drought and big rain events, which are predicted to become more common in Maine due to climate change.

“I know blueberry growers often use wood mulches to help regenerate bare areas, but mulching entire fields will increase organic matter content and the field’s ability to absorb and hold water,” said Mallory.

For large-scale farmers, investing in an irrigation system may also be a feasible option, said Ryan Crane, a fourth generation farmer from Crane Brothers Farms in Exeter. His family-run business has contoured land to direct runoff into reservoirs, which supplies their irrigation system.

Hilary Hosmer of Bernard: What crops will be appropriate for Maine besides blueberries, potatoes, and trees?

New crops that Crane, a farmer from Exeter, has considered are different varieties of corn that take longer to mature but have a higher yield. He’s also recently experimented with sweet potatoes, which require warmer soil temperatures than other Maine crops.

“I wouldn’t say it was a success, but I enjoyed the process and learning about that opened our eyes to what other crops might be available,” Crane said. “But when you think about it on a commercial scale, the piece that goes with producing the crop is having the infrastructure to do something with that product once it’s produced. Yes, we may be able to grow something [new] here, but are there facilities to process and get it out to consumers without the transportation costs being too significant?”

It’s important for farmers to think about the entire process before investing too much in a new crop, he said.

Michael San Filippo of Lynbrook, NY: What can Mainers do to reduce their carbon footprint and reduce their impact on farming and forestry?

“We can do things personally to figure out the carbon footprint in what we eat, how we travel and use energy,” said Fernandez. “We can also participate in various forums, this being one of them, to become increasingly informed about it, both professionally and personally.”

For more information about reducing your carbon footprint, visit climatecouncil.maine.gov/strategies. The Maine Conservation Alliance website offers many ways you can get involved in reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a greater scale.

Reporting and commentary surrounding these climate conversations are published under a Creative Commons license, and can be freely republished with citation. This work is supported through a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, which is helping the BDN reveal how local communities and Maine’s industries are coping with and adapting to climate change.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.