Climate change, shifting habits are steep hurdles for N.H. farms

Last modified: 11/25/2015 9:54:01 PM
Generations ago, Dimond Hill Farm had gardens and cows, a shoe-cobbling room and metal-working station, woodlots and no electricity. It was just one of a number of self-contained, multipurpose farms in New Hampshire.

On Monday, the Concord farm’s seventh generation, Jane Presby, said that time, technology – and most concerning, climate change – has changed all of that.

Fifty years ago, a system of interstate highways began cutting across the landscape. New machinery and electricity helped dairy farms grow larger. Government regulation got tighter. An industrial food system emerged, replacing mom-and-pop stores and family farms with supermarket chains.

Access to fresh, local food lessened, and so did education about where meals come from.

“We’re so far removed from . . . small backyard gardens,” Presby said.

There’s the newer, more erratic weather patterns, too, as a result of global warming by greenhouse gas emissions – NASA predicts 2015 will be the globe’s hottest year on record. In New Hampshire, freshly seeded fields flood, erode and are ruined in hard and heavy rainstorms that dump several inches over six or 12 hours.

This happened to Presby twice last summer, and she said she lost thousands of dollars in the process. “This field is dead,” she said, looking at deep gullies in the soil created by water. “You cannot believe how fast this happens.”

Precipitation “events are wackier. New Hampshire specifically – we’ve had about a 75 percent increase in these large events in the last decade,” said USDA Northeast Climate Hub Director Erin Lane.

Seasonal temperatures spike and then sink, sending confusing planting and other biological signals.

“Maple syrup season is getting earlier and becoming shorter,” Lane said.

And then there’s drought. Evaporation is increasing, Lane said, depleting soil of moisture between rain events.

“I still know we’re about 5 inches short of rain in our water table,” Presby said. She added that starting the next spring with not enough water in the ground could endanger her famous June tomatoes, whose young roots may not be long enough to reach moisture deeper down.

Weeds, pesticides and diseases, too, are moving northwards as temperatures warm, Lane said. In Presby’s fields of kale and chard, she said she’s constantly battling weeds that grow 4 feet high and dominate the space if left to their own devices.

“They come up so fast,” Presby said. “You can’t even find your plants.”

Solutions?

While climate change significantly affecting the food system isn’t the best news, optimists will be happy to hear that there are some solutions out there. This was the basis for the Sierra Club’s New Hampshire chapter hosting a roundtable discussion on the topic this week at Dimond Hill Farm. Presby, the USDA Northeast Climate Hub, the Carsey School of Public Policy and New Hampshire Food Alliance were all present.

Walking along her property Monday, Presby led the roundtable group into one of her five greenhouses.

“As far as scrambling for climate change, USDA has provided us with these greenhouses,” she said. “I didn’t know squat about greenhouses. They’re not cheap.”

They are, however, worthwhile. With stable temperatures and no pounding rain, Presby said her seedlings can get off to a strong start, safely grow and then go outside when she knows they’ll survive.

“It’s a critical thing,” she said.

Presby uses winter wheat and winter oats – they look like lush green grass – to help enrich her soils. Before the crops go to seed, Presby grounds them up and mixes them in, not only strengthening the structure of the soil, but feeding them lots of good nutrients, too.

The USDA Northeast Climate Hub, formed in 2013 to help advise farmers and foresters on how to adapt to climate change, said a number of different good soil practices will be important to the future of food production.

Another side

Also important is the other side of the food equation: the consumers.

As farms change, so do the ways in which people buy their food and eat it. People don’t eat food grown in their gardens much anymore, and while grocery stores are robust, access to fresh food is harder and harder for low-income, rural New Hampshire residents.

Jess Carson of UNH’s Carsey School of Public Policy said at the roundtable that most recent state data shows about one in 10 New Hampshire households are food insecure.

“It’s about 50,000 households in the Granite State,” she said.

While there are programs in place like food pantries, free and reduced school lunches, and federal benefits, they aren’t necessarily adequate. New Hampshire has been consistently at or near last in the nation for the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, with benefits at just $105 per month.

Food programs also aren’t necessarily utilized. “Uptake among income eligible households is pretty low,” said Carson.

That’s where education and people like Jennifer Wilhelm of the New Hampshire Food Alliance come in. With a new viability initiative announced just last week, Wilhelm is hoping to make connections between various members of the food system in order to improve as a whole.

“We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel,” Wilhelm said, “but to connect the good work that’s already happening.”

That could happen, for example, by having people who do actually grow gardens donate extra produce (zucchini, anyone?) to food pantries, churches or others in need. Or someone asking their older, perhaps homebound neighbor, if they need a ride to the grocery store.

Food products can be made more economical, too, through partnerships that benefit everyone. Wilhelm said that Concord Hospital, for instance, is partnering with local farmers and producers like Mitchell’s Salsa to use their products. As a result, Mitchell’s Salsa has increased from two to 10 employees to keep up with demand.

Presby has found ways to make her farm products more viable for everyone, too. She now buys seed for vegetables that grow in more guaranteed, shorter cycles, and they’re also good for customers on a budget who want produce for one or two meals.

“Every 10 days to two weeks, I’m replanting lettuce,” Presby said. Her logic is people may find, let’s say, a small cabbage more appealing than the old, massive “storage” cabbage, which would take a week to get through.

“You don’t want to eat cabbage” for that long, Presby said. She also hands out recipes for vegetables – such as cabbage – that may not inspire dozens of meal ideas on first glance, but can actually go into a quick, delicious dish.

“It’s a marketing thing,” Presby said.

All a part

Farmers, consumers, the food secure – they’re all part of New Hampshire’s food system future, which is what New Hampshire Sierra Club Chapter Director Catherine Corkery wanted to discuss Monday. With climate change already in motion, Corkery said, the conversation is increasingly more important to have.

“It’s a concern of ours,” Corkery said. She said her goal is to raise awareness about climate change impacts as well as to collect information of what potential solutions may be.

“We often learn about the polar bears and the moose,” Corkery said, “but we don’t hear about how it impacts us in our homes.”



Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect the number of New Hampshire households that are food insecure.




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