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Resiliency in the Face of Climate Change

by Megan Minnick, Purchasing Director

Typically, the mid-winter planning meetings that our Produce teams have with our local farmers are something we look forward to all season. During the depths of winter, we take time to reconnect with our farmers, dream of the summer bounty to come, and rehash both the successes and the learning opportunities of the previous year. 

This year felt different. 2018 was, by all accounts, one of the worst local growing seasons in memory. That by itself is concerning, but it’s even more worrisome when you consider the fact that with the onset of climate change, extreme weather events and patterns like the ones that contributed to the atypically poor growing conditions in 2018 may very well become more and more typical. 

I came away from our farmer meetings this year with a sense of foreboding that I’ve never experienced in my 18 years working with local farms. This particularly poor growing year brought home the reality that we can no longer take our bountiful Wisconsin local food supply for granted. In the coming years, our farmers may need our support more than they ever have before.

2018

So what was so terrible about 2018? It can be summed up quite simply: too much water at just the wrong time. 

Things started well. In early summer, the bountiful rain meant that our farmers had huge amounts of beautiful cooking greens such as kale, collards, and chard. Vegetable crops like broccoli, brussels sprouts, and other planned late summer/fall crops grew like crazy and things looked promising. 

Then August came and it started to rain, and rain, and rain. Though there were farms in our local area that suffered catastrophic flooding, none of the farms that we work with directly were flooded in the traditional sense. The damage came in a different and more subtle way: the excess moisture in the soil stunted the growth of many plants and the moisture in the air facilitated disease pressures that were too much for even the most skilled organic farmers to overcome. Mold, mildew, and other moisture related diseases literally took over farmers’ fields. 

Late summer/early fall is usually the height of local produce season in Wisconsin. I can generally look to almost any of our farms and come up with plenty of things to put on sale to celebrate Eat Local Month. This year, though we had local produce on the shelves, there were very few things that were bountiful enough to put on sale, and some crops that we expected to have were a struggle to find locally at all. 

Climate change and its impact on our local grower 

Were the poor growing conditions of last year a function of climate change? Though it can be tough to directly correlate our day-to-day weather with larger climate patterns, it is widely accepted that climate change will mean more extremes, such as the extreme amount of rain we saw in the summer and fall of last year. As David Bachhuber from Lovefood (our local culinary herb farmer) put it to me in an email: 

“My general feeling is that weather is going to continue to be more extreme as time goes on. I expect droughts, I expect floods, I've also heard that we should be expecting more hail. In general, my understanding is that even if we have the same amount of rain, we should expect for it to come in shorter more intense bursts.”

Certainly there are things that farms can do to prepare for these extremes, and many farmers are investing as much time and money as they can into this effort. These are things like drainage ditches and ponds to deal with too much rain, well water irrigation systems that can provide water during a drought, and high/low tunnels to protect plants from hail and heavy rain. 

It should be noted that organic growing practices themselves can be hugely important to a farm’s resiliency to climate events. Steve Pincus of Tipi Produce, one of our most masterful and experienced organic produce farmers put it this way: 

“Well-tended organic farms tend to fare okay during poor (wet, dry, hot) seasons. Biologically active mineraly balanced soils will buffer the worst effects of poor weather. I’ve seen this on my farms, and research from Rodale Institute backs this up. It takes years of investments and improvements to create organically healthy productive soil; six years on this farm before it really started to act like a true organic farm, and it’s still improving.”

Which leads me to one last vulnerability of our local food system in the face of climate change: new farms are at a huge disadvantage. Steve from Tipi has been farming for over 30 years, and he had this to say:

“...we are economically mature: we have a full line of reliable equipment and buildings, mortgage all paid, no bank loans, adequate savings to cushion against downturns, solid pre-season cash flow from CSA memberships. Younger farms won’t yet have all this built up, so are at risk from problems that we can endure.” 

Last year, it was some of our newer farms that suffered the hardest losses, and are having the hardest time recovering. These folks are the future of our local food system, and their vulnerability puts that future at real risk. 

What can we do? 

This is pretty sobering stuff. So what can we do? I reached out to a group of our farmers and asked this question. Cassie Noltnerwyss from Crossroads Community Farm had the following answer, which was echoed by many others:

“I think my answer would be education—using your platforms…. to educate consumers about climate change and how it impacts our growing. Consumers expect perfection, but if we can educate them in ways that help them understand how much waste can sometimes lie behind those perfect-looking vegetables, maybe they'd be willing to buy things that aren't as perfect?” 

It may also be helpful to consciously try to channel your support toward young farmers in particular. Thinking of signing up for a CSA? Consider signing up with a new farm, or visiting a new booth you’ve never noticed before at the farmers’ market. Though we have many long term suppliers here at the Co-op, every year we make an effort to start relationships with a few young farmers. It is vital that we all support them as much as we can. 

Now, more than ever, your grocery dollars spent on local products, (whether that be at the Co-op, the farmers’ markets, or CSAs) are incredibly important. It’s this income that sustains our local farmers, and allows them to invest in the infrastructure they will need to be successful in the coming years. As always, we will do everything we can to bring as much fresh local produce to our shelves as possible, and we’re committed to doing more to communicate how our local farmers are faring throughout the year. They will need all of our support as they face the challenges to come.