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Forced to Pay Attention

This article is republished on Civil Eats!

Tom Drew thought he had seen it all. A dairy farmer of 30 years in Woodland, Drew has weathered an awful lot of change. On an overcast, chilly day last fall, Tom and I rest in his milking parlor. As he leans his large frame on the metal table, he tells me about the history of the farm, and the old jack pines out front, how the two sisters who raised his grandfather were so attached to them. We discuss the dairy industry, how difficult it has been to remain profitable through so many changes, and how uncertain every day as a dairy farmer feels.

Even so, he was not prepared for the drought of 2018. Tom watched as his pasture withered. He waited for rain that never came. Finally, he had to buy hay to feed his cows, a substantial extra cost that he only managed to pay off more than a year later. “You live through something horrible like last year [drought of 2018], which is something I’ve never seen in my lifetime…I mean I think I’ve seen an extreme. Could you survive two of those [droughts] in a row here? No, I don’t believe you could.”

Between the weather, pests, and markets, farming has always made for an unpredictable life. But that unpredictability has gotten worse, farmers say. “Last year there was no way to control a thing about what was going on around you, you were caught in the middle of something that you could not have imagined would continue.” Tom pauses, weaving his fingers together. He gazes around the white walls of the milking parlor, then looks me straight in the eye. “You say well, I didn’t get a good first cuttin’ [of hay], it’ll rain, I’ll get a second cutting. Then all of a sudden the second cutting didn’t come cuz the rain didn’t come. So you eventually see yourself having lived the extremes you couldn’t have imagined…I was forced to pay attention.”

The last three years have brought challenging drought conditions to Maine. In a state where abundant rainfall was once considered a given, farmers have had to rethink their strategies. These drought conditions fit into a larger pattern of shifting weather trends attributed to climate change. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the Northeast is experiencing longer, drier summers punctuated by more intense precipitation events.

In addition, winter has become less reliably cold and snowy, and the onset of spring temperatures less predictable. Spring of 2019, for example, set records for coldest temperatures reached in May as well as rainfall amounts. Many farmers, with the prior year’s drought still lingering in their minds, found their fields overwhelmed with precipitation, so soggy they could not plant where they needed to. As Jill Agnew, of Willow Pond Farm says, “You don’t have any idea what’s coming. It’s hugely variable—way more than it used to be.”

On a chilly day in March, I meet up with Rob Johanson on a typically busy day at Goranson Farm in Dresden. Rob has a very quiet presence and seems surprised (and perhaps a bit disappointed) that we want to take his picture. He shows us around
Goranson Farm’s new barn and washing station, then we drive up the road to check out some fields.

Normally, Goranson Farm likes to do a four-year crop rotation to build organic matter into their soils. But the fields were so wet this spring—it’s been the wettest April in 40 years—they were forced to plant into fields they wanted to be resting, as those were the only viable ones. Rob shows us some fields they would like to be using, across the street, and grabs a handful of soil to demonstrate how soggy it is. As he squeezes it into a ball in his hand, water seeps out around it. They want to get their machines in to plant, he explains, but the soil is just too moist. “Could we hand transplant? Yes. Does it make economic sense? No. So we wait.”

Surrounded by soggy fields, we switch gears and talk about how hot the summers have been. Rob jokes that he spends his summer vacation irrigating. “We’ve had to invest a lot in being able to get water to plants, it’s been an expense, an increasing expense every year for us, to buy pumps, more pipe, and more time to move irrigation around the farm.” Farmers are used to being thrifty, but the changing weather conditions are requiring them to invest in more equipment. In addition to the money, there is the additional labor involved in setting out irrigation infrastructure, or building new storage facilities. The changes keep piling up, as do the costs.

At King Hill Farm in Penobscot, Amanda Provencher remembers when they started eleven years ago, they might have to irrigate once in August or September, or not at all. But lately there has been a steady progression in the other direction. “One year it’s so dry and we’re like…we’re setting up irrigation in July? And the next year it was June. And the last two or three years we have irrigated in April and May and that used to be the heaviest rainfall.” Like Tom Drew, they have had to feed their cows hay in the summer when it hasn’t rained. That solves the problem for the short term, but doesn’t address the bigger picture of increasing water scarcity. “I feel like I can handle anything else,” says Amanda, “but it’s the lack of water that really stresses me out.”

Beyond the more noticeable changes like drought, there are other, more subtle shifts occurring in the fields and forests. Throughout Maine, maple sugaring season is a time to celebrate winter’s thaw, collecting buckets and boiling sap around the clock. The timing of maple sugaring season, though, has been steadily creeping earlier. Rob Johanson has been making maple syrup for nearly 40 years. He recalls worrying about getting the buckets out in March, but now he’s thinking about it in early February, or sooner. Indeed, according to the USDA, in 2001, the earliest sap flow in Maine was in mid-March. In 2018, it was February 1st. “Though there have been many changes on the farm over the years,” he says, “this is the most recognizable shift.”

Maple syrup is one of Maine’s sweetest treats, and wild blueberries are another one. Blueberry farmers, too, are experiencing change. Although the extended fall season Maine is experiencing can be beneficial in terms of an extended fall season, it also has implications for pests. The blueberry industry has been facing a tough new one, the spotted winged drosophila, which is thriving in part due to a less predictable deep freeze in the winter. Beyond that, the warmer falls mean that even native plants are growing longer, seeding more, and offering up competition for blueberries. At Blue Hill Berry Company in Blue Hill, Nicolas Lindholm cultivates 100 acres of organic blueberries. He finds that insects and diseases are becoming more visible, but also that the shifting seasons are helping some native species thrive for a longer period of time.

“The longer seasons we’re generally having with the last frost in the spring getting earlier and the first frost in the fall getting later means that a lot of plants, even native plants like goldenrod, can keep going and going,” says Nicolas. He explains that these plants have been able to “produce more seed, or get more photosynthesis and feed their roots, so even with the native wild plants, there is more competition with the blueberries.” I had noticed the goldenrod driving up to Nicolas’ house earlier that day. The yellow spires looked glorious poking up above the berry bushes. Now I understand that their strong growth puts extra pressure on the berries. This requires more time weeding, to clear out space for the blueberries, at busy times when hands are needed on other tasks.

In addition to the goldenrod, Nicolas and his wife, Maryann, have also noticed some other “odd activity” in the fall. Some plants seem to be reacting to false winters and putting on blossoms. For the last few years, he says, buds have been waking up following a long, warm fall, a cold snap in late October, and a warm stretch in November. “They think they’ve been through winter,” Nicolas explains. “Then of course they get frosted by real winter in December, and the buds are destroyed and the plants lose a lot of energy.” So far, Nicolas has only noticed this in one particular species of wild blueberry, but it gives him a funny feeling. The extended seasons, he says, “are throwing strange wrenches.”

I find myself thinking about change, and how to cope with it, when I drop by Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus. The sky is thick with clouds. It is one of those May days that feels closer to winter than to spring. Two employees are picking kale and spinach in an unheated greenhouse near the farmstand, and point out back when I ask about where I can find Jill Agnew.

I find Jill walking out from her back field, where she is fixing up deer fencing. Jill started Willow Pond Farm more than 30 years ago, and was the first farm in the state to try out the CSA model. She is a slight woman, still wearing her winter flannel because it’s been such a chilly spring. As we walk through the orchard, our feet sink into the wet earth. We talk about how both of our oregano plants, which usually winter well, died this year. Following fluctuating fall temperatures, Jill’s raspberries also took a major hit. We talk about how things are always shifting on the farm. “That’s why we like farming. You have to pay attention,” she says. “You have to learn and adapt every single year. But the changes are coming so fast, and the fact is its becoming hugely economic too.”

Like so many others, she’s had to invest in hoop houses, switch around her planting schedule, and adapt. Indeed, as the Northeast is projected to warm more than any other region in the contiguous United States by 2035, Maine farmers may have to adapt more than they could ever have imagined. That’s certainly a tall order in a profession that is already pretty risky in the best of years.

The good news is that Maine farmers are already doing things that make them more resilient. Things like rotating their crops, managing irrigation differently, and minimizing tillage. As Jill says, “farmers— that’s what we do—we adapt to changes. We have to. We don’t analyze them, we don’t say no, no, no. There’s nothing we can do about it except go with the flow.” I ask her how she’s been holding up this spring, with the wet weather. She looks around then points down. “We work hard to get a lot of organic matter into our soil, and I think that helps in these wet years. I’m feeling pretty resilient right now, pretty okay.” We turn and slowly walk up toward the barn. The gray of the day remains, but the rows of white apple blossoms, stark against the dark tree trunks, lead us on.

PHOTOS (in order of appearance)

  1. Tom Drew has been farming his entire life in Woodland, Maine. He has “never seen anything like” the drought of 2018.
  2. Rob Johanson crumbles soggy soil in spring of 2019. Erratic weather and wet fields have affected the crop rotations at Goranson Farm.
  3. Amanda Provencher calls herself a perpetual optimist but can’t help but worry about heat, water, and the ability to farm in the future.
  4. Even native Maine plants can be fooled.
  5. Crops don’t know how to react to “odd activity.” Warm falls, cold snaps, spring droughts, and mild winters can all trick a plant into using too much energy too soon.
  6. Jill Agnew of Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus worries about the economic costs due to unpredictable weather.
  7. Employees at Willow Pond Farm harvest early spinach.
  8. Nicolas Lindholm of Blue Hill Berry Company sees resilience in the genetic diversity of wild blueberries. But he worries about the impacts of erratic weather.
  9. Gus Schultz digs in the carrot patch at King Hill Farm.

kate olson is a writer, scholar, and activist who lives
in Maine. Learn more about her multimedia project
documenting lived experiences of climate change in
Maine. | livingchange.blog @livingchangeme

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