The first in a six-part series in which the authors, Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard, recent graduate students from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, tour the United States, uncovering stories of people preparing for life in a changing climate.
Climate change is no longer something far away in time and place; its impacts are being felt today, in almost every corner of the globe. Just look at the multitude of extremes we’ve seen in the United States in the past year: Lake Michigan is at its lowest levels in a century, New England keeps flash flooding, the mid-Atlantic was pummeled by Hurricane Sandy, sea levels are rising, drought abounds, forests are burning. The list goes on. As graduate students in environmental policy, we heard a lot about how people need to prepare, build their resilience, adapt (insert your favorite buzzword here) to the impacts of climate change—even while we still hold hope for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
But we weren’t sure what adaptation looked like. Would we recognize it if we saw it? So, we embarked on a three-month road trip (in Allie’s mom’s mini-van) around the United States to explore what these weather extremes mean for the American hometown.
We wanted to find examples of people using their wits and resources to build their resilience to the already-felt or predicted changes that a carbon-laden atmosphere and ocean bring. As we traverse coastlines, mountains, and all that lies in between, we are collecting stories about human creativity and innovation, new technologies and strategies, and most importantly, hope for a better future.
We chose to visit Vermont on our road trip because we heard that many farmers were still recovering from the flooding impacts of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. There is this catch-22 in Vermont: the floodplain is the most fertile land to grow on, but also the most vulnerable. When someone told us about the river that jumped its banks during the storm, cutting a new course through the fields of Evening Song Farm, we knew that was our story. Our interview with Ryan Beauchamp of Evening Song remains one of the most emotional of the trip. From Ryan, we learned that ‘resilience’ is not something you inherently have, but something you build—through time, through community, and even through grieving. As we drove away from Evening Song Farm, we sat in silence for a long time, reflecting on how difficult Ryan and Kara’s road has been and hoping that the worst is below them as they start their new lives as hillside farmers.
—Allie and Kirsten
It takes us an entire morning and part of an afternoon to find Evening Song Farm. I think they got wiped out by the flood, the owner of a sandwich shop in Cuttingsville, Vermont shrugs. A few miles down the road, we find Evening Song’s faded sign. No answer at the door. A woman at the garden shop tells us to cross the bridge and then the railroad tracks, turn right onto a dirt road, and follow it to the top.
At last, we arrive at Evening Song 2.0, with its five acres of vegetables. However, in the time it takes us to find the new farm, Ryan Wood Beauchamp and Kara Fitzgerald have gone back downhill to the old one to eat lunch and rest after a morning in the field. Their newly hired farmhand calls to tell them to expect us, and we head back down into the floodplain. Beauchamp comes out to greet us, and we walk along the river that flows where Evening Song’s crops used to grow.
“What happened was just so sudden,” Beauchamp tells us, recalling the day in late August 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont, causing the river to jump its banks and slash through their farm, which hadn’t yet celebrated its first birthday. “Something that seemed so permanent—land—was just washed away.”
Evening Song was the only farm in Cuttingsville completely destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene, but the storm’s wrath was felt across the state, where many of Vermont’s approximately 7,000 farms suffered major losses. After Irene, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that no food crop that had come into contact with floodwater could be sold—protecting public health, but also causing millions of dollars of economic losses for farmers.
“It was very hard to tell these farmers that on top of their other losses, they couldn’t sell their food,” said Ginger Nickerson, Coordinator at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at UVM Extension. “Many of the small-scale specialty crop growers don’t have insurance—either they aren’t eligible or they choose to risk it because the process of getting insured is more costly than the coverage they can receive.”
For many, the Tropical Storm was an eye-opening experience in that it exposed Vermont farmers’ vulnerabilities to the expected impacts of climate change, such as increased flooding.
“Irene really brought to light the risks, since we hadn’t had a major flood like that in many years,” said Diane Bothfeld, a Deputy Secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. “A concern about ‘adulterated’ harvest has prompted farmers to think about what they plant and how they plant it.”
For some farms, like Evening Song, the extent of the storm’s damage was so severe that they decided to buy land at a higher elevation, where yields are significantly lower but flood risk is nil. Other farms, like Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, are making much smaller adjustments, such as siting new greenhouses on the few acres of their 60-acre fields that were not flooded during Irene. Intervale, the first Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in Vermont, enlisted volunteers to begin harvesting crops from their fields two days before the Tropical Storm but still lost about a quarter of their 2011 revenue to the flooding and had to cancel their winter CSA.
However, when we asked Andy Jones, the manager of Intervale, if he would do anything differently next time, he was hesitant: “It’s hard to balance. We want to be prudent and not ignore the potential disaster, but at the same time, the costs of over-preparing are significant as well, since it means taking plants out of the fields prematurely.”
One technique for flood prevention falling out of favor is the use of riprap, or rock structures designed to keep rivers in their beds. The state of Vermont used to fund riprap projects, but stopped because the structures don’t prevent flooding overall, often only deflecting a surging river from one farm to another.
After Irene, conservation easements under the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Authority were elevated as a way to pay farmers to keep land directly adjacent to the riverbank unplanted and let natural vegetation, such as alders and willows, grow back. Increasing riparian buffers, or vegetated areas next to water sources helps to stabilize banks while filtering pollution and providing wildlife habitat. Irene illustrated the difference that land use can make during flooding events. In one juxtaposition, the town of Middlebury, which has ample floodplain access, was mostly spared from flooding while nearby Brandon, whose development has left little space for the river to swell, suffered much more damage.
According to Deputy Secretary Bothfeld, who herself grew up on a Vermont dairy farm, planting crops with a quicker turnaround may also make sense in areas prone to flooding.
Increased flooding events are not the only climate change impact farmers in Vermont are contending with, though. As average temperatures increase, the ranges of pests are extending northward and more invasive species are appearing in Vermont. More frequent hailstorms may shred leaves and pelt crops. And records show that maple syrup producers are tapping their trees earlier and earlier in Vermont.
“The growing season has definitely changed a lot,” said Deputy Secretary Bothfeld. “It’s May 24th, and farmers have already cut their first cut of hay. Even in my lifetime, it used to be the first or second week in June.”
According to Marli Rupe, a liaison between water managers and farmers at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, some Vermont farmers have been able to take advantage of warmer temperatures and a lengthening growing season by planting new crops. Many daughters and sons of Vermont farmers are now going to college before returning to run their family farms, with new ideas, such as a mobile app that helps farmers track their nutrient management program. Soybeans and sweet potatoes, which have historically been grown in warmer climes, are now moving into the state—and are sometimes planted by unlikely entrepreneurs.
“Because dairy farmers own equipment like seeders and cultivators, they can do things like plant 10 acres of sweet potatoes,” Rupe said. “The ability to diversify has been a major change in Vermont agriculture for the last 20 or 30 years, and climate change may continue to fuel that entrepreneurial spirit.”
However, when it comes to weathering big storms, even young farmers like Beauchamp and Fitzgerald often turn to something more traditional: community. After Evening Song was swept away by Irene, the couple held a ‘support raising’ potluck and party in their barn. Neighbors donated items to auction off and placed checks or bills in a donation jar while their children played in the rocks of the new riverbed.
“Resilience is non-linear and messy,” Beauchamp told us. “[The damage] was so painful that, immediately after, it was difficult to integrate the new reality. We had this bounty of support after Irene. Then people transitioned back into their own lives. It was easy for me to feel throughout the process that we were failing. Eventually we transitioned to—how are we going to make this happen?”
Beauchamp and Fitzgerald spent months driving along every back road in town, looking for land for sale. It took another year, and a very hard winter, but in January 2013, the couple used the money the community raised to purchase their new, higher ground. It’s the beginning of their second first summer of farming in Cuttingsville, and their Swiss chard is hibernating under the hay.
Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard will be on the road through late summer. Learn more about their trip at www.adaptionstories.com.