Starting a Farm in Uncertain Climate Times

2/28/24

Hi all,

My name is Bo Dennis, and I am the beginning farmer program specialist at MOFGA. I am also the farmer at Dandy Ram Farm, a flower farm based in Penobscot territory of Monroe, Maine. Each year, I see the direct effects of climate change on our farm — the intense storms with flooding and winds, the changing pest and disease pressure, the stretches of drought, and compared to when I started farming 16 years ago, our dependence on irrigation systems and covered growing structures. Through my job at MOFGA I visit around 40 beginning farms a year and see similar patterns. While I hope my observations from these visits feel supportive to farmers at all levels of experience, I particularly address this to beginning farmers trying to start a farm in uncertain and intense climate times.

2023 was the wettest summer on record since 1917, with May through September being the second rainiest since 1895 (according to the University of Maine Climate Change Institute). To top it off, it was accompanied by a late spring frost, a hurricane with damaging winds in September, and the “Grinch” storm in mid-December. We know that these intense weather patterns are increasing due to climate change. On many farm visits this year with beginning farmers, we stood in saturated fields, oftentimes with water pooling around our well-worn boots in between rows of crops, witnessing the impact of this weather. Flooded fields can create anaerobic soil conditions, nutrient leaching and corresponding disease pressure. On one such farm visit, we stood inside a tomato house with flooded pathways, attempting to identify multiple diseases that were showing up simultaneously. It was a hard year.

As a farmer, it feels heartbreaking to see the work and effort undone — the tarps blown off the field, greenhouses with ripped plastic and end walls falling off, lost shed roofs. These examples have both financial and emotional repercussions. It is important to note that climate change does not affect all of us equally, and the equity impacts of climate change are linked to conversations of land and financial access. Farmers experiencing intersecting systems of oppression, such as racism and class disparity, are often only able to access marginal land, which is likely to be more impacted by weather.

The most painful thing we all hold is our emotions around climate anxiety, and I see these heightened for beginning farmers. The unknown factors and financial stress of starting a farm combined with the unpredictable nature of climate change is overwhelming. As is a common trend I noticed among farmers, especially newer growers, of blaming ourselves for things that are entirely out of our control. In response to a wind storm we think, “I should have latched that door better … secured the greenhouse plastic tighter … screwed the roof screws in tighter.” These feelings of self-blame when dealing with storm setbacks can be especially hard early on — if it is your first year or two in production, losing 50% or more of your crop to climate-related issues has a big impact. In a few cases, as I saw this year, such setbacks could lead to first-year farmers already closing their businesses. Tying self-worth to the success of the farm’s worth makes us vulnerable to the continual and intensifying climate upsets.

Ugh.

As much as we don’t know in these unpredictable times, we do know that we can expect the unexpected. Acknowledging and embracing this might help position beginning farmers with resiliency from the beginning of their businesses. We also know that sustainable (ecologically, financially and socially) farming communities are crucial in our collective response to climate change. I hope by sharing these key few strategies we can collectively consider how to hold hope and support for one another in envisioning and continuing to grow our dynamic local food system in uncertain times.

Focus on What We Know to Inform Decisions

If this is your first year farming, take note of what you observe! Take diligent records. After a rainstorm, how does water move through your field? Which plants look the healthiest? What direction does the wind come from? Each year you will improve your skills as a grower as well as find the plants and animals that work best for your production systems. Adapting to changes based on your personal experience growing through climate change will help prepare you for more extreme weather events. A good place to observe how other farmers are adapting is through farm visits. Designed for beginning farmers, MOFGA’s Farm Training Project is a farm tour series that happens throughout the summer on various farms. Sign up through MOFGA’s event calendar.

Financial Planning

Best laid plans, right? While financial planning for your first season may feel like a hurdle, become familiar with various financial tools such as cash-flow projections that can help you make decisions. Consider developing a “worst case scenario” cash-flow projection. Consider various income streams if what you thought was going to happen doesn’t. This could also include diversifying your income stream your first few years to include an off-farm job for stability. Stay open, be creative and understand what you need financially to keep the farm going. MOFGA’s Farm Beginnings course that runs November to February each year is a business planning course designed for beginning farmers to turn their own records into powerful tools to help make plans. Having farm financial statements ready also prepares you to be able to apply for loans as well as grants. Over the coming year there will be more funding opportunities to support farmers in climate change, and multiple years in business will not be a prerequisite to applying for those.

Make Room for Our Emotions

How do we hold hope for agricultural futures and joy in the shifting climate? It is important that we first recognize the anxiety, stress and depression climate change can cause. Process the grief. Make space for it. Go easy on yourself: our self-worth as people is more than our productivity, and it certainly is not determined by how we can feel ok about 72 mph winds or three months of torrential rain storms. Connect with other farmers about it. In these ways we build our understanding, peer community and emotional strength to keep going. In 2024, MOFGA will be initiating new peer-to-peer spaces dedicated to farmers connecting around climate change.

MOFGA sees climate change affecting all farms in the coming years. I’m excited to introduce Meg Mitchell, climate smart and organic transitions specialist. Mitchell has spent the last couple of decades running South Paw Farm and understands firsthand the impacts that climate change can have as farm businesses evolve. Mitchell will be spending most of her time working directly with farmers to support and connect them with programs and opportunities to implement climate-smart practices and to transition to organic farming when applicable. She can meet one-on-one with beginning farmers to help them consider how to position themselves resiliently through climate change, and can be reached at [email protected].

This article was originally published in the spring 2024 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

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