Love and Nutrients in the Anthropocene

May 29, 2024

To build a resilient foundation to respond to climate change, philosopher Dr. Bayo Akomolafe nudges us, “The times are urgent; let us slow down.” By rooting in our gratitude, our inner experiences and our interconnectedness, we’ll find the strength and support we need to create a world where relationships are prioritized and where everyone has enough. Recently, I’ve found a favorite way to get to this space of calm, safety and contemplation. I reach back into my mind and visit a beloved childhood tree. I go there and stay awhile, taking in the spring blossoms, the low forked branches, and the wild and open feeling I get from entering into the canopy. There is space here to celebrate, love, grieve and endure.

Last winter, we all felt our hearts in our chests as storm clouds gathered week after week. With repetition, winds picked up and greenhouse plastic began its inevitable tattering while we all clutched our spreadsheets and tried to drown out the gusts with our favorite coping mechanisms. We can no longer count on six months of frozen ground to protect our herds’ feet, or stretches of nice haymaking weather. We’ve faced the climate crisis on the daily. A storm dumping 5 inches of rain is no longer an outlier, it is the norm. It isn’t just the reality of determining how we will deal with each day’s threat, weather events have become consistent reminders of an existential crisis transforming into an immediate one. In my role at MOFGA, I hope to both be a present listener and responsive to the needs and concerns of farmers, as well as a channel of creative technical support and connection to resources.

Farmers are needing to balance the immediacy of crisis response with the visionary practice of long-term adaptation planning. To hold these two essential aspects of survival at once, I suggest that, as a community, we may need to reconnect with each other and the many relationships that make us whole. We owe so much of who we are to the human and more-than-human networks that support us. Taking a moment, especially in the midst of turbulence, to connect with these interdependent parts of ourselves will give us a foundation for an enduring transformation. We can find some curiosity and creativity here. Why did you get into farming? What keeps you here doing this work?

As a culture that centers extractive capitalism, we’ve found ourselves crashing hard into the realities caused by glorifying production and consumption. As farmers, many of us are choosing this work because of our love for nourishing each other, and our desire to be connected more intimately — through farming — with the land and our more-than-human community. We get to behold the magic of the world around us: how energy and life cycles transform sun into grass into milk. I farm for those glimmers of connectivity: seeing the vivid green of stocky tomato plants signaling our nutrient management plan making good on its promise.

Being present with our personal deep understanding of why we do this work and making space to love, grieve, be anxious, listen and feel joy will steward us towards imagining a world where the wellbeing of the planet and each other is a priority. It can be hard, ugly and uncomfortable but grieving what we have lost helps. Leaning into that heart-sinking feeling — of seeing gullies in our fields after a storm, of losing the biological communities that we’ve fostered — can lead us back to that core connection with our work. There is no grief without love. Feeling deeply the loss of species we love, soil strata we love, ways of life that we love, brings us back again to our vision and why we do this work and connects us to an enduring community foundation.

In March of 2024, MOFGA and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA Vermont) teamed up to host a series of virtual solutions-focused workshops led by agricultural professionals. In her presentation, Approaching Nutrient Management in a Changing Climate, Dr. Becky Madden of the University of Vermont said, “The impacts of climate change on soil health is a very new science. From a global perspective, there’s lots of soil carbon being released as things warm. The microbial communities are changing in the soils. There’s a scary risk to the microbial organisms in their individual communities. They’re shifting with climate change on a physical level.”

We are needing to approach nutrient leaching, soil loss and erosion with a more dynamic and intentional strategy than in years past. A lot of us came into nutrient management with an A+B=C mentality. We got soil tests, we added the necessary ingredients, and we saw the results. With our new reality of shifting weather patterns, nutrient application rates and materials now need to be assessed on the job. Both drought and excessive rains prevent plants from taking up the nutrients we’re providing.

These climate-altered cycles of nutrient demand mean that we’ll need to dial in our management plans. For crop growers, we’ll need to employ precision soil amending: rigorous soil testing and matching fertility material with the growth curve of each specific crop. In drought conditions, routine irrigation will be essential to nurturing crop growth. In excessive rain, we’ll need to do more frequent side dressings to reduce the amount lost in each storm and keep nutrients freshly available.

For livestock farmers, Dr. Jaime Garzon, who presented at one of the Farmer Climate Forums in March, suggested that the interactions between livestock, plants, soil and air are not as linear as have been professed by the agricultural science community. The soil is not here to sustain plants; it is not laboring for the livestock farmer. There is life beyond measure in our pastures and haylands, so we must consider how our actions are affecting this micro community. To build resilience to cope with unexpected flooding and droughts we’ll need to build precision forage management budgets, dial in a diverse species selection, and implement hay conditioning at harvest.

As Mark Guzzi of Peacemeal Farm mentioned at one of MOFGA’s Climate Cafes, “Farming has never been easy and now we have to do it better.”

For all types of farmers, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is currently offering ways to offset climate adaptation investments. The available funding for climate-smart NRCS contracts is 13 times last year’s budget. The annual application cut off is in August, so make plans to get over to your U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) service center and delve into the variety of activities that could be cost-shared by the NRCS (detailed at nrcs.usda.gov). Get funding for a nutrient management plan, carbon-based soil amendments, windbreaks and cover cropping. Farmers are often tasked with doing the public good at a private cost and here are some opportunities to defray those expenses.

Climate programming has become standard for agricultural nonprofits in Maine. MOFGA offers direct technical assistance as well as workshops and farm tours, many of which we co-sponsor with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Maine Farmland Trust under the banner the Maine Soil Health Project, the objective of which is maximizing living roots, soil cover and biodiversity and minimizing soil disturbance. Our climate programming includes the annual March Farmer Climate Forums (recordings of which can be found on MOFGA’s YouTube page), as well as Climate Cafes, which are a series of in-person gatherings held around the state with the goal of building our community networks and resilience skills. Maine Farmland Trust offers a variety of pathways to engage in climate action for your farm including the Maine Soil Health Network, Climate Resilience Assistance Grants and direct one-on-one support.

Lately, I’ve been challenging myself to restructure my understanding of climate change from a problem to be solved to the appreciation that it is a dilemma with a myriad of adaptation pathways. Problems and solutions are linear, static and binary, and our responses to this situation cannot be. In this liminal space, where the familiar is no longer a given and the path forward is uncertain, let us come together to make new collective neural pathways that are rooted in connectivity and interdependence.

– Meg Mitchell, MOFGA’s Climate Smart and Organic Transition Specialist

This article was originally published in the summer 2024 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener. Become a MOFGA member to support these free resources and receive our quarterly newspaper, which is considered to be one of the leading information sources on organic agriculture and sustainable living practices.

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