Climate change is hurting NH farmers. Climate resiliency offers a path forward

By AMANDA PIRANI

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 08-05-2023 4:00 PM

New Hampshire farmers like Danny Hicks have faced one hit after another due to abnormal weather this growing season. 

Hicks, who owns Sunnycrest Farm in Londonderry, said a February cold snap took out most of the farm’s stone fruit, including summer favorites like peaches, cherries, and plums. Then, to make matters worse, May saw a night below freezing, just as some trees were in bloom. 

Recent intense rainfall is creating a different problem. Hicks said while crops such as pumpkins thrive with increased rainfall, other crops can “drown.” After severe storms this month, some crops were immediately replanted because of flooding, he said. In other parts of the state, crops were covered by several feet of water

New Hampshire has over 4,000 farms and 97% are family-owned, according to the most recent data from the 2017 census of agriculture. The majority bring in less than $10,000 in sales each year, making this year’s losses devastating for some. State officials have requested aid from the federal government in hopes of mitigating the damage. The Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire has also created its own emergency farmer relief fund for farmers recovering from summer flooding. 

Agriculture professors at the University of New Hampshire say these strange weather patterns are likely part of a new normal for farmers, who will continue to face challenges due to climate change. Local farmers say adaptation is complicated, as each farm is a unique ecosystem with specific needs.

To help address that challenge, the New Hampshire Association of Conservation Districts is providing farmers with the latest knowledge and resources for sustainable practices. A new pilot program through UNH Extension also offers farmers one-on-one assistance to become more climate resilient. 

‘Education is a huge part of farming’ 

Jane Presby, who operates Dimond Hill Farm in Concord, describes education as essential to farming. Presby’s farm is a local landmark of sorts. It serves as both a symbol of history and the future for small-scale farmers in New Hampshire. 

Dimond Hill has stood for generations, with its beginnings tracing back over two centuries. When Presby inherited the farm in the 1990s, she was still a local teacher. Her background in science and health education fostered a desire to engage in practices that would benefit the land and human health. She farms without pesticides, uses natural fertilizers like local manure and seaweed, and grows clover to keep the soil healthy.

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In 1998, Presby built the farm’s first high tunnel, a greenhouse-like structure, for tomatoes. Now, she cultivates more than 20 varieties throughout the growing season, focusing on varieties that will thrive in high temperatures. However, Presby said learning how to grow her tomatoes sustainably was a long, painstaking process – one that demonstrates the stakes of taking on new farming techniques. 

“It’s expensive, and you can’t screw around with it, because you put so much money into it in the beginning,” she said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a disaster.” 

She described educational efforts as key to her success in expanding the farm’s fruit and vegetable crops. Programs like UNH Extension twilight meetings and travels along the coast shaped her approach. 

Presby said the primary difficulty of farming education is that every piece of land requires a different approach for success. What one farmer touts as the best “green farming” technique may mean failure for another. 

“Every farm is different, like this farm is different than the farms down in the valley,” she said. “I don’t have flooding problems. I don’t have … fog problems. I think if you break it down, [farms are] like the clothes in your closet, they’re personal.” 

UNH pilot program offers one-on-one help 

That’s why the UNH Extension climate resilience program aims to meet farmers where they’re at, and assess the specific needs of their land. 

“We wanted to kind of expand on what we’ve done rather than just say, here’s a set of practices that farms can use,” said Carl Majewski, a dairy, livestock, and forage crops field specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension.

Along with Majewski, the pilot program is led by Heather Bryant and Olivia Saunders, fruit and vegetable production field specialists at UNH Cooperative Extension. The team will work with local farmers to determine where changes can be made to improve climate resilience. 

“I always say that it’s not that farmers aren’t used to being at the mercy of the elements. There’s always been drought periods, there’s always been, you know, heavy rains and occasional floods,” Majewski said. “But these days it’s just kind of whipsawing back and forth … between these challenges. 

Bryant said farmers can expect a longer growing season because of warming temperatures, but also more frequent extreme weather, and the same frequency of unusual frost events. With increases in precipitation and temperature, erosion and pests could also become bigger challenges.

And even with more periods of heavy rainfall, drought will continue to be a concern. According to the 2021 New Hampshire Climate Assessment, an increase in extreme precipitation events is not expected to offset a loss in soil moisture as warm-season temperatures rise, meaning farmers could see more frequent short-term drought. 

One special area of focus for agricultural specialists like Bryant and Majewski is improving soil conditions. Healthy soil can sequester more carbon from the atmosphere, and reduces risks of erosion and flooding. Two techniques Bryant emphasized are no-till farming and the use of cover crops. 

Tillage is the practice of digging up or breaking up soil, often by plow, before planting. Over-tilling can lead to erosion and poor soil quality. No-till farming is the practice of sowing seeds without disturbing the soil, often utilizing special flail mowers, seed drills, and tractor attachments. 

Cover crops are grown not for commercial purposes, but for other benefits such as preventing erosion, mitigating weed growth, or improving soil health. 

How and whether these practices are implemented varies from farm to farm, and the pilot program can help farmers develop a tailored plan.

Despite the loss in tree fruits this year, Majewski and Bryant do not expect the kinds of crops farmers grow to change. However, they said farmers may have to consider plant traits like drought and pest resistance more so than in the past. 

“There are plenty of breeders who are looking at vegetable varieties that are more heat tolerant and drought resistant, which might make sense for some farms,” Bryant said. 

She added that farmers might begin growing more varieties of foods to mitigate weather-related losses. 

“If you were an apple grower, for example, you might be thinking about varieties that would not all flower at the same time so that if a frost comes along, hopefully it wouldn’t take out all of your crops, but maybe just some of the varieties,” Bryant said. 

More funding to address up-front costs 

Utilizing more sustainable practices can mean purchasing new tools, or trying new methods without a guarantee they’ll yield the same results. For that reason, the up-front costs of climate-resilient practices might dissuade some farmers from exploring changes. The New Hampshire Association of Conservation Districts, along with county-level conservation districts, works to address that concern. 

The NHACD staffs three state conservation planners who can connect farmers to state and federal grant opportunities, free workshops, or farming equipment owned by the county conservation district. 

Conservation planners can also work with farmers to design a unique conservation plan, similar to the UNH Extension pilot program. Hepp said each county conservation district also has its own climate resilience grants for farms, which can cover up to 75% of project costs. 

“Farmers can get assistance on a real wide range of practices from cover crops to … a high tunnel,” she said. 

Many county-level conservation districts have used funds to lead workshops or purchase farming tools that can aid in sustainable agriculture, like no-till seed drills. 

“We’re talking about pieces of equipment that are $30,000 or more that an individual small farmer can’t afford to have … so this way they can try some of these new practices on the ground,” she said. 

Hepp expects that there will be greater opportunities than in the past as a result of new federal funding. 

“The funding available through some of this current legislation is going to really ramp up in the next … two or three years and so, you know, it’s a moment where there’s going to be more funding than there has been in the past and maybe in the future. But for now, there’s really an opportunity to take advantage of this,” she said. 

Farmers interested in grant opportunities or conservation planner assistance can reach out to the NHACD or their county conservation district. The UNH pilot program, which launched this spring, is still taking on interested farms. Those interested can reach the team via email or call the UNH Cooperative Extension office. 

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