July 20, 2017
by John Piotti - photos by Kelsey Kobik
All the peach farmers I know lost their crop last year. Growing peaches in Maine has always been iffy—a hit or miss sort of thing, historically dependent on how cold it gets mid-winter. But as we contemplate global warming, we tend to think that crops associated with southern climes, like peaches, could flourish here in the future. And indeed they might. But last year, something about the vagaries of the weather—notably that warm early spring— prevented the fruit from setting. In today’s world, Maineʼs peach harvest may be threatened as much by ill-timed warmth as extreme cold. Not all the impacts of a warming climate are what we might expect.
A few months ago I found myself at a forum on
climate change speaking to a room of environmentalists about farming. Given limited time, I chose to focus on a single topic: how I’m alarmed to increasingly hear Mainers say that a warming
climate, which they dread in so many ways, would at least be good for our farmers. I was eager to know if others in the room were hearing the same, and wondering if this group of activists had suggestions on how we might better inform the public about climate change’s very real threat to farming in Maine.
Instead, my words surprised many in the audience; and their words, in turn, surprised me: many of these environmentalists thought that climate change would, on balance, help Maine farmers.
I think most people understand how a warming climate will cause impacts that go far beyond just rising temperatures, because rising temperatures, in and of themselves, bring about other changes. For instance, we have become accustomed to think that a hotter planet will raise sea levels, intensify hurricanes, and threaten millions who live on vulnerable coastlines.
And we certainly comprehend that, due to rising temperatures, farming may no longer be possible in many hot and dry places that will become even hotter and drier. But in cool and relatively wet parts of the world, the potential impact of climate change on farming seems bearable. Here in Maine, where we perceive the growing season to be so short compared to bountiful agricultural regions like California, it can be easy to imagine a silver lining.
But in truth, a warming climate will do more than lengthen Maineʼs growing season—and none of it is good. Climate change is already exposing Maine crops to new pests (insects, weeds, diseases), disrupting the timing of natural pollinators, and increasing the frequency of severe storms that wash out newly-planted seeds, damage growing crops, and erode soil. These impacts are only expected to increase. Meanwhile, longer and drier summers will threaten crops that aren’t irrigated—the vast bulk of what Maine grows.
And warm spells occurring anywhere between November and April will force fruit trees and other perennials to bud early, putting those crops at risk. (Last November’s record-high temperatures caused apple trees to blossom in parts of southern Maine. The impact on this year’s harvest will likely be modest; but if this kind of weather becomes more frequent and widespread in the future, the negative impacts will escalate.)
At the same time, any hoped-for benefits of a longer growing season may prove ethereal. Gaining extra weeks in spring and fall may not help farmers at all if those weeks correspond to the amount of time in midsummer when—because of high heat or lack of water—nothing is growing. And the arrival of warmer temperatures earlier in the year does no good if heavy spring rains keep tractors off fields at precisely the time farmers want to plant.
Beyond that, it’s worth noting that the current length of the growing season is not a major barrier to Maineʼs agricultural production. If I asked Maine farmers to list the top ten items adversely affecting their operations, the length of the growing season would not appear on many lists. Indeed, the current growing season is well-suited to potatoes, Maineʼs largest crop. And higher temperatures won’t help dairy, Maineʼs second largest agricultural sector.
True, a longer growing season would theoretically help farmers who focus on warm season vegetables. But I wonder how useful this will really prove, given that smart and simple strategies that allow farmers to extend their seasons already exist— trategies which often bring additional benefits. For instance, hoop houses enable farmers to manage water and temperature in ways that would never be possible on an open field. Ironically, I expect that global warming, which will increasingly result in more extreme and less predictable weather, will push many vegetable farmers to raise more crops in controlled environments, where any benefits that might result from a longer growing season would not be needed—or utilized.
Simply put, the negative impacts of climate change on farms in Maine are real and growing, while the one potential benefit—a longer growing season—may not be much of a benefit at all. But donʼt be too discouraged. There may well be a silver lining, just of a different sort.
Farming—whether in Maine or beyond—has the potential to help mitigate climate change by recapturing carbon in the soil. Not all farming reduces atmospheric carbon. But the right farming practices applied in the right places can make a real difference.
Agriculture and climate change are interwoven in powerful ways.
On the negative side, agriculture is a leading cause of climate change. Roughly half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (44–57%) result from our food system: either through direct farm production (11–15%); land-use change (15–18%); processing, packing, selling food (15–20%); and food waste (2–4%).01
Agricultural-related emissions result frommultiple activities. We burn fossil fuels to operate farm equipment and irrigation systems, as well as
to transport, process, and store our food. We use a wide range of chemicals and fertilizers that—through both their manufacture and use—release greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, our livestock and their manure piles emit methane.
Beyond all that, we release carbon from our soils into the atmosphere. This occurs as a direct result of a wide range of agricultural practices, from the tilling of fields to short-sighted methods of clearing land. A staggering one-third of all the carbon in our atmosphere has been released from the soil—and most of that has been released since 1850.02
The good news is that we can take steps to reverse the flow of carbon, recapturing it into our soil from the air. By some estimates, our fields and forests—if managed to maximize carbon sequestration—could reduce atmospheric carbon over the next century by 75 parts per million (ppm) or more. (Atmospheric carbon recently passed 400 ppm; many scientists say we need to return to 350 ppm to prevent catastrophic warming.)
Farming with a specific goal of recapturing carbon could make a real difference mitigating climate change. Coupled with aggressive emission reductions, it provides a practical way—andperhaps the only way—to reduce atmospheric carbon to acceptable levels.03
The concept of “carbon farming” was elevated to broader public awareness last fall in a Washington Post article by Debbie Barker and Michael Pollan entitled, “A Secret Weapon to Fight Climate Change: Dirt.” But the idea is far from new. It’s embodied in the practice of regenerative organic agriculture that the Rodale Institute has advocated for decades, and in a multitude of other farming practices that have been utilized, in some cases, for centuries.
Carbon farming is a good heading for all such practices that rebuild soil carbon. The term puts the connection to climate change front and center, so that rebuilding soil carbon is viewed not just as a good farming practice, but as a meaningful response to our planetʼs most pressing challenge. This perspective will encourage the agricultural community to optimize questration as it refines and improves these practices over time. Carbon sequestration then becomes a primary goal, not just a secondary outcome of farming practices that principally aim to produce food more sustainably.
At its simplest, carbon farming is about rebuilding soil through various well-known techniques, such as the active use of cover crops, planting methods that minimize or eliminate the need for tillage, wider use of perennial crops, and interspersing different types of crops—including trees—in creative ways. Sequestering carbon not only improves soil health, but also builds resilience in cropping systems, enabling farmers to better cope with heavy rain and drought.
But at the same time, carbon farming is inherently complicated. One reason is because many of the techniques which restore carbon to the soil are themselves complex. Compared to monoculture, managing land for multiple crops requires more of farmers—broader knowledge, new investment, and a willingness to take on different kinds of risks. Intensive use of cover crops takes more work and special skills. And no-till planting requires farmers to buy new equipment and adopt new methods.
The practice of carbon farming is further confounded because the science is so young. We know that many of these techniques work for growing food, because they have been used for this purpose, sometimes for centuries. But we don’t yet know, with enough specificity, how well various techniques work to capture carbon in the soil. From research undertaken to date, it appears that techniques which work well at capturing carbon on one site may not work so well on another, due to soil type or terrain. Early research also shows that a given practice’s ability to sequester carbon can vary greatly depending on rainfall and temperature—so that a practice that might work well for growing crops in two regions may not work nearly as well at capturing carbon in one of those regions, due to climatic differences. This is all complicated enough, but even more so in a world where regional climates are changing.
Beyond that, we have not yet fully developed some of the types of crop that would be ideal for carbon farming. For instance, the vast majority of the grains we eat are annuals, not perennials, and annuals require plowing that disturbs the soil and emits carbon. Wes Jackson of the Kansas-based The Land Institute, along with other pioneers of sustainable agriculture, has made great progress over the last few decades breeding new perennial grains, but more research and refinement is needed before we can expect widespread adoption by farmers.
What all this means is that most farmers are not yet in a position to farm in a way that maximizes carbon sequestration. Few farmers know which practices would work best on their land. And even where that is clear, farmers seldom have all the tools, skills, and financial resources they need to implement those practices to the degree that would be most beneficial.
Part of the issue is that—at least here in the U.S.—there’s no mechanism to compensate farmers for the benefits they bring by sequestering carbon. A few programs that use carbon credits to pay farmers are being pilot tested, mostly abroad. Here at home, no government program does this. Nor is there enough federally funded research into carbon farming. But because the public is increasingly demanding that the government take a different approach to farming, I don’t think it will be too long before federal policy shifts.
Still, we don’t need to wait until then to make progress. One of the lessons learned from the local food movement is that informed consumers are willing and eager to buy food from farmers who practice farming in ways they appreciate. In Maine, which has led this movement, many farmers have already adopted environmentally sound practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and no-till production. Couple this with the fact that farming here is of a scale that lends itself to further innovation, and Maine is poised to leap forward.
Goranson Farm in Dresden is one of many Maine farms that employ farming methods that build soil carbon and help mitigate climate change.
The family cultivates about 80 acres on which they grow a full array of organic vegetables, plus raise meat—all sold locally. They manage their livestock to help build soil fertility. And for over 20 years, they have practiced a four-year rotation involving two years of vegetable roduction and two years of cover crops. This practice—coupled with concerted efforts to reduce tillage—has resulted in significant improvements in the soil’s health.
A few years ago, one of the family’s sons bought a horse. Ever since then, the farm has utilized horsepower—strategically, where it makes the most sense—to replace tractor use. Last year, the family planted 23 acres of cover crops with horsepower. They also use horses in tight spots where a tractor might do damage, and to cut hay. The family is now working toward establishing a seven-year ley rotation, which will involve three years of grazed sod, two years of cover crops, and two years of vegetable production. They are constantly experimenting, moving ever closer to an optimal system for their land.
Why does Goranson Farm take these extra steps? One reason is that these practices rebuild soil, which is key to the sustainability of their farm. Another is that these farmers care deeply about the environment. Beyond that, their loyal customers appreciate what they do. Probably few of their customers fully understand all the steps the family takes to be good stewards of the land, but the family’s overall commitment to stewardship is clear.
After a century of decline, farming in Maine has grown dramatically in the last 15 years, spurred primarily by small and mid-size farms that serve local markets. Not all of these farms do as much as Goranson Farm to capture carbon and rebuild soil, but most follow good practices and are open to doing more. Maine can not only feed itself, but help feed the broader region. That’s because Maine boasts millions of acres of formerly farmed land that could be used to grow food once again. But as Maine reclaims this former farmland, it’s
important to both learn from the past and move beyond that past. We have a special opportunity to “get it right,” to follow forward-looking practices that sequester carbon—including forest farming, silvopasture, and management-intensive grazing. 04
Much is riding on what Maine does next. In the face of the many threats brought by a changing climate, both our public policies and our personal energies must be directed to helping farmers transition to practices that give them a better shot at thriving in the future. But the reason to do so is not just because we want to maintain local food production or vibrant rural communities. As important as those goals may be, what’s more important is that we advance farming to where it fulfills its promise to combat climate change.
Maine is poised to test, refine, and model various carbon farming practices—and it is far better positioned to do so than other regions with similar climates. For one thing, Maine possesses so much former farmland that could be reclaimed anew, and in ways that enable testing of different strategies. For another, so many of Maineʼs farmers not only want to do their part, but have the inventive spirit these times demand. And finally, so many of Maineʼs consumers are willing to pay a little more for local food—not only because the food tastes better, but because of all that our farmers do for us.
Maineʼs farmers not only raise the food that sustains us, but steward the fields and woods that we cherish for hiking and hunting, scenery andsolace. Beyond that, with the right resources and support, our farmers can help restore our planet.
This is the great story of our time. Maineʼs farmers are central to the action. But all of us who live here have a role to play. There is too much atstake not to make this a personal priority.
01 The Carbon Farming Solution, by Eric Toensmeier, Chelsea Green
Publishing, 2016, page 12.
03 “A Secret Weapon to Fight Climate Change: Dirt,” by Debbie
Barker and Michael Pollan, The Washington Post, December 4,
04 “Reclaiming Maineʼs Lost Farmland,” by John Piotti,
Maine Farms, 2015.