Sunday, March 2, 2014

Farming Adaptation in a Changing Climate

Rocky River Farm in 2008 in Chatham County.



On Friday, February 7, I attended the Abundance Foundation’s second Farming Adaptation Conference in a Changing Climate, held in Pittsboro, North Carolina, at the Central Carolina Community College.  The previous Thursday evening I went to the related Amuse Bouche event, which provided a panel of four of the conference leaders, with WUNC-FM’s radio host of the “The State of Things,” Frack Stasio moderating.  The panelists were: Albert Bates, author of books on biochar, climate crisis, who heads the Eco-village network; Michiel Doorn, a multi-national sustainability strategist from the Netherlands campus of Webster University; Liane Salgado, who works with Carrboro Greenspace, Piedmont wildlife Center, and Carrboro Community Garden Coalition; and Lyle Estill, a Chatham entrepreneur who started the Bio-Fuels plant in Pittsboro and has published many books on that subject and on how local communities can thrive.

People may argue about climate change, but farmers notice. Consider the reality that it’s getting harder now for farmers to grow food.

That weekend in February I was introduced to three major concepts/practical solutions that farmers and communities may use to help them keep growing food despite our wildly unpredictable weather.  Those three concepts, all new to me, are: permaculture, biochar as a soil amendment, and transitioning/eco-villages. Weather has always been difficult for farmers and sometimes unpredictable, but in recent years, the weather has become even harder and often wildly unpredictable.  

Some years since 2000 we’ve had extremely hot summers.  During the July fourth weekend in 2012 we had here in central North Carolina three days of temperatures of 105 F, and a week of temperatures over 100 F.  The seeds I had recently planted couldn’t germinate.  The flowers on tomato and pepper plants didn’t make fruit.  Fortunately I had put in drip irrigation earlier that season, and that kept the plants alive, but they couldn’t flourish during that excessive heat.  

This winter of 2014, in January and February, has brought more single digit temperatures and more snow and ice to this area than we’ve had for years.  I can usually plant early spring crops in February, but not this year due to the weather.  For awhile the ground was frozen hard–rare here.  I was eager to learn any strategies I could to help me keep growing food.  Mostly I grow for myself, but I also sell a few things as cash crops.  

Two of the sessions were especially helpful to me with specific advice and strategies.  One was led by Cathy Jones of Perry-winkle Farm.  She talked about how to assess which parts of your farm got sun and shade and urged us to consider our farms’ micro-climate. Her farm gets frosts early in the fall and late in the spring.  I have noticed that mine is the opposite.  When it’s 30-32 F at our airport RDU, I don’t get frost.  It has to dip down into the 20s F at the airport before the frost comes here.  So I get my first fall frost later even than people living a few miles away, and I often slip through late spring frosts if they aren’t severe.  Cathy pointed out season extension strategies and urged knowing your energy level and capacity.  Mine is good for my age, but I work more slowly and take more breaks.  Cathy also pointed out that sandier soils and raised beds can be worked earlier in the season, and wet ground collects and radiates more heat to alter the environment.

Laura Lengnick, Director of the Sustainable Agriculture program at Warren Wilson College, also gave a very helpful presentation based on a study she is doing of selected sustainable farmers in various parts of the country, as to how they’re managing with climate change.  It turns out that the Southeast has less climate change than most of the rest of the country.  She said the farmers she spoke to have learned they can’t rely on a plan.  No two years are alike. They have to be flexible and nimble.  One idea is to get beds ready in the fall and then they’re ready when you need them.  Some farmers have moved away from direct seeding and grow all their vegetables as transplants.  A lot of droughts are happening in the summer.  One good solution is drip irrigation, which make maximum use of the available water.  Wind has become a new problem.  When the weather makes a sudden change, this is often accompanied by straight winds.  So farm structures will need to be sturdy to deal with the wind.  She said diversity helps, too, so you’re not dependent on only certain crops.  The hardest time of the year for farmers is the transition from spring to summer and then from summer to fall.  Some farmers aren’t growing crops in the summer any more.

From Albert Bates and others, we learned about biochair, to be distinguished from charcoal.  It’s created when you burn wood or other plant material without oxygen.  It then has to be reduced to particles the size an earthworm could digest before it’s added to the soil, but it enhances plant growth by pulling carbon out of the air and also helping the soil retain both water and nutrients.  Very early indigenous societies on the American continent used it!  As a means of soil enrichment it’s being used all over the world now, and small biochar cookers are available.  It didn’t seem right for me now on my small farm, but it’s good to know about it.

Al also emphasized permaculture as the best farming method now and for the future.  This, too, is an age-old practice.  When I got home, I looked up permaculture in Wikipedia.  

The Australian Bill Mollison defines it: “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with rather than against nature, of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor, and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions rather than treating any one as a single product system.  Specifically it means (1) care for the earth, provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. (2) care for the people–provision for people to access resources necessary for their existence. (3) return of surplus–this includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness.  It seeks to minimize waste and maximize useful connections between the components, so that the whole becomes greater than its parts. 
Consider the natural layers in a permaculture farm or community:

1) Canopy–the tallest trees.
2) Understory layer–trees that grow less than forty-five feet high.
3) Shrubs–berry bushes
4) Herbaceous–annuals, biennials, or perennials
5) Soil surface–cover crops to retain soil nutrients and organic matter
6) Root crops–potatoes, beets, carrots, etc.
7) Vertical layer–vines, e.g., peas, runner beans, etc.

Some other recommended practices: rain water harvesting; mulches of organic material, which absorb rainfall, reduce evaporation, provide nutrients, increase organic matter in the soil, and feed and create a habitat for soil organisms; suppressing weed growth and weed seed germination, moderating temperature swings, protecting against frost, and reducing erosion.

The one which puzzled me most and I didn’t find in Wikipedia was Transitioning as it was used at the conference.  Apparently twenty-five towns in the U.S. and more abroad are doing this.  The main idea seems to be trying to do as much as possible locally; supporting local businesses rather than big corporate ones; providing food through permaculture gardens, and then Al and others talked about eco-villages.  I did find a Wikipedia entry for eco-villages.  

Eco-villages are intentional communities whose goal is to become more socially, economically and ecologically sustainable.  United by shared economic, social-economic and cultural or  spiritual values, these villages seek alternatives to ecologically destructive electrical, water, transportation, and water treatment systems. Many see the breakdown of traditional forms of community. Wasteful consumerist lifestyles, the destruction of natural habitats, urban sprawl, factory-farming, and over-reliance on fossil fuels are trends that must be changed to avert ecological disasters and create richer, more fulfilling ways of life.

Robert Gilman defined an eco-village as “a human scale full-featured settlement in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.”

People throughout the world are coming together to try to reduce their carbon footprint, move away from depending on fossil fuels and consumerist practices, producing and consuming locally; forging meaningful relationships and living as sustainably as possible.

I realize now that I have visited an eco-village.  The Community of the Arc in southern France follows the ideas of Gandhi, and is doing what these definitions point to.  They grow their own food, make their clothes from flax and sheep’s wool; have minimal electricity on site from a generator; only one or two cars for forty-fifty people. Their telephone is a pay phone.  They have a spiritual emphasis and celebrate seven major world religions, each on a different day. They all share all the work.  I visited this one in 1988, with my sixteen-year-old daughter, and in 1990, with my twenty-one-year-old son. They didn’t use imports, so no coffee, only their local herb teas.

I haven’t wanted so far to live in an intentional community, but I am trying to live close to this model on my small farm, which I might call a homestead.  I grow and preserve as much food as possible, use hand tools except for lawnmower and weeder.  I do have a pickup. I have chickens, fruit trees, berry bushes, grow vegetables, and drink herb teas I grow (peppermint, lemon balm, and lemon grass).  I also do a lot of trading, mutual gift-giving with friends and neighbors.  My house is well-insulated, and I have solar tubes for extra light.  I also have a wood-burning stove to save electricity in winter, and I keep the air conditioning at 83 F; the heat pump in winter, as needed, at 68F, and adjust myself by more or fewer clothes.  We can all do something toward living more simply and more sustainably, if not everything.  We can ask ourselves: what do we really need and how can we spend less, waste less, study our natural world for clues and connections, and communicate better with, and care more attentively for, the human, animal, and plant beings around us.  Judy Hogan

Read more about this conference, including photos and reports at 


You may also be interested in my novel Farm Fresh and Fatal, which takes place in a farmers' market in my fictional Riverdell, a village based on Saxapahaw, Pittsboro, and Moncure, which takes up another serious issue in farming now:  genetically modified seeds.

No comments:

Post a Comment