Building a Resilient Farmer Network in the Face of Climate Disruption

Progress report for ONE19-348

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2019: $29,917.00
Projected End Date: 04/30/2022
Grant Recipient: Vital Communities
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Nancy LaRowe
Vital Communities
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Project Information

Summary:

Climate disruption is a growing threat to Upper Valley food producers and the communities that rely on them. Having spoken with several local producers about what would best assist their response to our changing climate, Vital Communities’ Valley Food & Farm (VFF) staff proposed a series of regularly scheduled, farmer-directed gatherings to focus on peer-to-peer learning, discussions with experts, on-farm models and demonstrations, and access to other resources that could improve farm resiliency.

Many resources are available for producers seeking adaptive solutions to climate change, including information on farm practices that would mitigate greenhouse gas production. However, discussions with local producers revealed their lack of familiarity with available resources and their frustration in finding the time to seek them out and individually navigate the complexities of climate adaptation. Nevertheless, understanding the importance of resilience and the economic threats posed by climate disruption, they are deeply interested in our hosting a regular venue to build connections, share resources, and invite expertise and technical assistance from beyond the region.

Having hosted many similar issue-based forums and programs for the region’s farmers in the past, VFF is ideally positioned for this work. It is our practice to consult with our farmer-partners on the format and approach that best suits their schedules, experience, and interests. This often entails an informal advisory group to work with our VFF program coordinator (and farmer-in-residence) to co-lead project development. Therefore, this grant has polled farmers, assemble an advisory cohort, determined a format, identified priority topics as well as topical resources and expertise, publicized activities to producers beyond the formal grant partners, and we will develop a toolkit for post-grant use

Project Objectives:

There is significant expertise among our farmer base and we have cultivated a culture of convening and sharing. This project seeks to directly assist approximately 35 farmers in adapting their farm practices to climate instability through education, awareness-building, technical assistance, and peer support. They will also be coached to take a leadership role in securing our region’s food supply by creating food system resiliency in their communities.  An additional 75 farmers will benefit from by-products of the project: powerpoints, reports, and other residual materials online.  Objectives include

  • Building a community of farmers focused on sharing knowledge, equipment, production, or other resources needed for the coming decades;
  • Providing a central clearinghouse to make relevant resources continuously available to Upper Valley producers;
  • Collaborating with farmers to develop a convening format that accommodates their busy schedules, including content they find practical and relevant;
  • Facilitating individual farms and/or the group as a whole in identifying gaps in resources needed over the short term to meet their farm and community goals related to climate change.
Introduction:

Our project will engage state and regional research and experts, within the context of local relationships. Vital Communities has worked with producers in small-group settings for decades, most recently convening three themed producer groups: farm businesses invested in shared food facilities, on-farm employee education, and small-group peer-to-peer learning. Producers trust us to identify and share resources, and are interested in building community around this topic. Our region is home to significant climate expertise on both sides of the Connecticut River, all of which will benefit producers.

The State of Vermont (climatechange.vermont.gov) predicts both threats, such as heat stress on livestock and a steady decline in maple sugar production, and opportunities, presented by an extended growing season and milder winters. University of Vermont’s (UVM) extension service has a Farming & Climate Change Program (www.uvm.edu/extension/sustainableagriculture/farming-climate-change-program), part of its Center for Sustainable Agriculture, with a fulltime Farming & Climate Change Coordinator on staff.  Videos on the website showcase New England farmers, including Edgewater Farm and Vermont’s Intervale, who are already experimenting with new crops and practices adapted to changing hardiness zones.

New Hampshire, on the other hand, is highly focused on fisheries and coastal weather events.  Agriculture topics on the University of New Hampshire (UNH) extension service website (extension.unh.edu/topics/agriculture-horticulture) mention climate change only incidentally, all the more reason for regional programs like ours to assist our region’s New Hampshire farmers in understanding and preparing for climate adaptation.

Since 2017, Vital Communities has taken on the Upper Valley Adaptation Workgroup as a new program. (UVAW, vitalcommunities.org/adaptation). UVAW is a coalition of leaders from relevant stakeholder groups  focused on building climate resilient communities in our region. Our project will leverage their expertise, both states’ extension services, and the USDA Northeast Climate Hub.

Our project also draws on two other sources.  A 2013-14 study of 15 Vermont farmers after Tropical Storm Irene conducted by Dr. Rachel Schattman, a USDA Northeast Climate Hub researcher for the University of Vermont indicated that farm response to climate change was based largely on personal experience with extreme weather, especially flooding.  Her recommendation that farmers share adaptive practices is reflected in the SARE-funded 2017-18 New England Adaptation Survey for Vegetable and Fruit Growers, a UVM survey of 193 growers across the region.  Farmers’ top preference for “the best source of information and adaptive approaches to new challenges” was other farmers (88%), followed by university extension (62%), conferences (59%), personal experience and innovation (53%), and 17 other choices (p. 19). 

Of the survey’s 193 respondents, 66 were from Vermont and 28 from New Hampshire. We contacted project researcher Alissa White for more detailed information on the ten who responded from the four counties comprising the bulk of our region (0 Sullivan Co, NH; 2 Grafton Co, NH, 5 Orange Co, VT; 3 Windsor Co, VT). The mere fact that there were so few Upper Valley respondents evidences the need for outreach and education.  Upper Valley respondents farmed an average of 16.5 acres, 6.4 in organic production.  All but two were beginning farmers with less than ten years experience.  Half were female and the average age was 45. 

Practices already in use to mitigate increased precipitation were many and varied.  Six farmers (all Vermont) were already using 10 to 18 of 30 suggested practices, the rest two to nine.  Their top five concerns, in descending order, were reduced snow cover, increased disease and fungus, unpredictable spring temperatures, increased insect and pest threats, and loss of nutrients due to precipitation. Nearly all agreed (mean score: 4.8 of a possible 5) that “increased intensity of droughts, storms, and floods is a result of climate change,” and that their farmland “was vulnerable to extreme weather conditions” (4 of 5).  Their confidence that “community and social networks will support my farm in recovering from severe impacts… including crop insurance” scored 2.9 of 5, possibly because none had water management insurance.  (Nor had any conducted financial analysis and planning for climate adaptation, indicating likely topics for our project.)

Finally, Upper Valley respondents agreed with their New England peers (67%) that grants would be the incentive/resource most helpful in making changes needed to manage climate disruption. However, they deviated by ranking demonstrations equal to grants, while New England growers as a whole ranked demonstrations fifth of six choices.  Following grants and demonstrations, Upper Valley farmers ranked the remaining choices in descending order: technical assistance and equipment access (tied for second place), followed by cost shares and Other Resources, which elicited two responses: education and one-on-one advice.

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

2019

The Farmer Climate Network kick off event in October 2019 attracted 21 farmers for a presentation by Josha Faulker, UVM Farming and Climate Change Program Coordinator. Dr. Faulkner shared climate trends and projections for Vermont and the region and the resulting impacts for farms and our food system. Farmers shared how they are being impacted and how they are mitigating and adapting for climate.

Farmers participated in a group activity to design future network educational events and creative solutions to current and looming challenges. Farmers formed 8 groups according to topics they would like more information about/training on/resources invested in and then the group, by consensus, designed the types of activities they would find useful and attend. The information gathered from the groups included the type of event (webinar, workshop, online reading, etc), goal for event, time of year, location, and possible presenters. A few examples:

  • No-till education with a workshop/conference component in the winter along with an on-farm demonstration in the summer 
  • Regional resilience by limiting farm inputs with webinars with expert presenters and online reading and resources
  • Water management workshop to better understand erosion control, drainage, and irrigation systems

 

In November 2019 Edgewater Farm hosted 16 people, including 4 farmers and 3 service providers. The event started with a presentation by Chris Skoglund from the NH Department of Environmental Services “Preparing Local Food Systems for Climate Change”.  Pooh Sprague (Edgewater Farm owner) shared his experiences farming in a changing climate and we toured the farm to learn about the adaptation practices the farm has implemented over the past several year.

    

2020

We collaborated with the Connecticut River Farmer Watershed Alliance to host an in-person event "Payment for Ecosystem Services Presentation". The event attracted 25 participants including 16 farmers, UVM Ext. and NRCS staff and included break out sessions to get input on how a PES system could work in Vermont.

In February 2020 we also hosted a two-part workshop with "Renewable Energy Funding for Farms and Small Businesses" in collaboration with Rural Development with the goal of providing the information and resources needed to move forward with a renewable or energy efficiency project. The series included a webinar overview of the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) and an in-person workshop with The Rural Development Energy Coordinator for Vermont and New Hampshire, a farmer and solar installer who recently completed a REAP project, and Vital Communities' Climate Projects Coordinator. Three farmers attended both sessions and Eight farmers attended either the webinar or the workshop. Session recordings, and energy efficiency and renewable energy resources were shared with all event attendees and shared with 140 farmers via email.

We were in the midst of planning a six-part in-person community educational series "Climate and Community Resilience: Lessons from the Soil" for the spring when COVID-19 required the transition to virtual events. This free series was in collaboration with many partners including Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition. The series ran from late March to mid-May with the following sessions: 

Earth’s Cycles: Foundations of Energy and Matter, Historical Landscape: Learning from the Past, Here and Now: Human Impacts, Systems Collapse: Climate and Ecological Crisis, Revolutionary Resilience: Creating a Different Future, Fertile Ground: Reclaiming Power and Possibility

This workshop series was open to the public and highly promoted to farmers as the content focused on soil health in increasing climate resilience. The final session included a panel with five farmers sharing how they are adapting to climate change and/or farming with regenerative practices. Each session included time for breakout conversations among attendees to build relationships and community around climate resilience. The virtual logistics for this series made it difficult to report how many farmers participated in this series, but we approximate at least 12 farmers attended at least one of the sessions. Recordings of the entire workshop series were shared with 143 farms via email.

In October and November 2020 we hosted three virtual events "Resilience Through Local Food Security" in the New Hampshire communities of Lebanon/Mascoma Valley, the Kearsarge region, and Claremont/Newport. The pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of local farms and working lands and these events included hearing farmer stories about their land challenges and successes as they stepped up to feed our community during the past year and land access technical assistance from project collaborator, Land for Good. The goal of the series was to build community and facilitate connections that increase resilience through local food production and working lands in these three micro-regions in New Hampshire. The Lebanon/Mascoma Valley event included stories from a local dairy and attracted five farmers. The Kearsarge event focused on stories about farmers working with the community to make sure that neighbors weren't hungry during the early days of the pandemic and included six farmers. The Claremont/Newport conversation focused increasing working lands through conversation and had five farmers participate. We followed up the sessions with land access resources and technical support for farmers and community resilience building resources for all.

2021
Another year of pandemic in-person event restrictions and general economic uncertainty resulted in another challenging year and an adaptation. The focus on hyper-local connections and solutions to food system challenges and climate change resilience along with the organic growth of grassroots food resilience groups in our region, led to the creation of a new network- Upper Valley Resilience Network.

There was strong interest from farmers and other community food resilience groups in building a network for communication, resource sharing, and relationship building. We hosted three virtual convenings during the non-growing season that attracted much interest from farmers, grassroots food action/resilience committees, agriculture service providers, other and food system stakeholders. Network members are all food system stakeholders (food access, community gardens, farm businesses, Ag service providers) working to increase local food system resilience in the face of climate change.  Sub-regional and town groups shared resources, projects, and planned for building capacity at the hyper-local level while strengthening a network that can learn from and support each other. This hyper-local approach is in response to the pandemic isolation yet will be critical in preparing the Upper Valley food system for the impacts of climate change.

We were able to host one in-person workshop in August at Winter Street Farm in Claremont, New Hampshire- “Land Access and No-Till Farming”. Winter Street Farm is a small certified organic CSA farm that was in its third year of operation and has been experimenting with no-till vegetable production. The Saturday afternoon event included a conversation about creative ways to access land as a new farmer and a tour of their no-till diversified farm. 21 people attended the workshop, including 12 farmers. Winter Street demonstrated their experimentation with no-till vegetable farming, sharing successes and failures.

 

An Online Toolkit of climate resources for farmers was started in 2020, but a re-design of the Vital Communities website in 2021 delayed completion until Spring 2022.

Regeneration Corp partnership- In 2021 Vital Communities joined as a partner in Regeneration Corps, a learning collaborative that connects youth with learning opportunities about regenerative agriculture and social justice. Several Upper Valley regenerative farms are Corps partners and host area high school students in on-farm activities that support increased understanding and implementation of regenerative production practices.

Vital Communities also joined the Southeast Regional Vermont Agricultural Water Quality Partnership to build awareness of and network relationships with the many area service providers that are working with farms to improved their environmental practices while increasing farm viability. This coordinated effort will increase the efficiency and adoption speed of conservation practices by area farms.

We are developing a Bulk Purchasing Program designed to empower small to mid-scale farmers to act collectively as a large-scale producer in buying agricultural materials, supplies, and equipment at significant discounts. The goals for this project are to lower the costs of production for farmers and support farms becoming more climate resilient.

Participation Summary
7 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

6 Consultations
2 Tours
16 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Other educational activities: Online toolkit with resources and best practices about climate-smart farming

Participation Summary:

52 Farmers
8 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Consultants:
Joshua Faulkner (UVM Farming & Climate Change Program Coordinator)- presented at event and provided many connections to folks working in the Ag/climate realm and other resources.
Alissa White (UVM Fellow)- provided data on implementation of adaptation and mitigation practices among farmers and emerging resources for farmers.
Laura Johnson (UVM Extension and CT River Farmer Watershed Alliance coordinator)- Pollinator and biodiversity information.  
Jeremy DeLisle and Olivia Saunders (UNH Cooperative Extension)- technologies and techniques for conserving water while irrigating crops.
Ken Yearman (Rural Development Energy Coordinator for VT & NH)- Solar subsidy programs for farms.
Cat Buxton- Grow More, Waste Less- Soil health expert that presented at events and provided resources on building healthy soil.

Tours:
Edgewater Farm, 2019
Winter Street Farm, 2020

Webinars, Talks, Presentations:

October 2019, Farmer Climate Network Kick-off
February 2020, Payment for Ecosystem Services farmer input event
February 2020, Renewable Energy Funding for Farmers- a 2 part event
March-May 2020, Soil Health a 6 part virtual series
October-November 2020, Resilience Through Food Security- 3 virtual events
February- April 2021, Upper Valley Resilience Network 3 virtual convenings 

 

 

Learning Outcomes

Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

An initial questionaire of the 22 farmers that attended the network kick off event in the fall of 2019 reported that 100% have already experienced the impacts of climate change on their farm. 91% had been impacted by increased flooding and erosion issues, 82% reported increased pest and disease issues and drought stresses. Heat stress impacted 77%. Other impacts reported included nutrient management issues, and increase crop failures or product loss. Five farmers reported that they were implementing some mitigation/adaption practices, four have a plan to implement next season, and eleven farmers are not adapting to climate change and don't have a plan. When asked what resources they were lacking to implement climate practices, 91% reported that  bandwidth and money were the key reasons that have not been adapting to climate. More than 85% said they can't afford the supplies or equipment and that they can't financially risk changing their current production systems. 

An evaluative survey of network farmers will be completed in Spring 2022 that will include questions about where there are still gaps in knowledge and resources.

Building a community of farmers during a pandemic was challenging since we could not gather together in-person and with how busy farmers were adjusting and pivoting to the volatile landscape of shifting market channels and increased interest in local food. Our execution of this project also pivoted to support to farms as best we could during this extremely challenging time by providing resources via e-blasts and one-on-one farmer assistance and outreach.

A pandemic silver-lining is that community and food system resilience has become a topic more people are cultivating at the hyper-local level. Farmers with a community are cooperating in ways they never used to (Honey Field Farm is hosting bi-weekly Pop-Up Markets this winter for dozens of vendors that lost a market channel when the Norwich Winter Market couldn't run due to COVID, many farmstands are now carrying lots of other farm's products). Community member are taking an active interest in their neighborhood farm and land conservation. This trend has led us to develop the Upper Valley Resilience Network to increase connection, information, and resources among the many grassroots efforts to positively impact food access and security, farm sustainability, and climate adaptation. Consistent communications channels along with an online clearinghouse/toolkit to share best practices/resources for farmers along with examples of how other towns/regions/food action groups are innovating and coordinating to increase climate resilience. 

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Awareness and urgency of the climate crisis broadly increased dramatically during the 2.5 years of this project along with farmer knowledge and resources. Community awareness and interest in the local food system has also increased during this time. This alignment has created an opportunity to make significant progress in farmer implementation of climate-smart farming practices with customer support and interest in farms that are "climate farmers"

Many farmers in our region are actively addressing their carbon inputs and their impact on the climate through various mitigation and adaptation practices. Sunrise Farm, a partner in this project, has built a carbon management facility on the farm that collects compost from the community and turns waste into compost that feeds the vegetables that he then sells to his community through CSA shares. 

Luna Bleu Farm, a partner in this project, has joined with others in their 4 Town region (Sharon, Royalton, Stafford, Tunbridge) to expand the community garden and neighboring food shelf and create the White River Land Collaborative- an alternative model for land use that is leading the way in how communities can support working lands, young farmers, and social justice. 

The pandemic has brought about collaboration and innovation in in many realms, including our local food system. The networks that are being created now, like the UV Resilience Network are preparing us for future crisis. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.