Farmers forced to adapt as changing precipitation patterns reduce output, income

Farmers forced to adapt as changing precipitation patterns reduce output, income

The sign outside Spring Valley Student Farm, a collaborative project with UConn’s Residential Life, Dining Services and EcoHouse Learning Community in Mansfield, Conn., on Sept. 23, 2022. Jessica Larkin-Wells, the farm manager for Spring Valley Student Farm, said the farm focuses heavily on education, including how to build resilient soil. (Madeline Papcun/University of Connecticut)

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(Editor’s note: This story contains some harsh language.)

MANSFIELD, Connecticut – Confronted by the growing unpredictability of precipitation patterns caused by climate change, small-scale Connecticut farmers are facing significant losses. But they are learning to adapt their practices and focusing on maintaining soil conditions.

Dr. Michael Dietz is the director of the Connecticut Institute of Water Resources and an extension educator for the University of Connecticut’s Extension program. He explained in an interview that tracking the flow levels of Connecticut streams and rivers over the past three years shows extreme variation in summer rain levels.

“We’re still in a moderate drought, but the swing we’ve taken is dramatic,” Dietz said. “There was a drought two years ago, last summer was a wet summer with huge rains and record high flow levels for streams and rivers, and this summer again the drought has brought record low flow levels.”

Local farmers have had to adapt their agricultural practices in accordance with these varying precipitation rates. This includes the Spring Valley Student Farm, a collaboration with the University of Connecticut’s Residential Life, Dining Services and EcoHouse Learning Community.

“It’s so nice now that it rains,” said Jessica Larkin-Wells, the farm manager at Spring Valley Student Farm, in an interview detailing the “brutal” growing season the farm faced due to the recent drought.

Spring Valley Student Farm occupies a one-acre plot of land, owned by UConn. The small farm handles drought by building their soil to resist variable precipitation ahead of time, Larkin-Wells said. This protects their crops against both drought and extremely heavy rain, before either occurs.

Student volunteers work on the privy at Spring Valley Student Farm in Mansfield, Conn., on Sept. 23, 2022. The farm relies heavily on volunteer work, said Jessica Larkin-Wells, the farm’s manager. (Madeline Papcun/University of Connecticut)

Larkin-Wells explained that Spring Valley Student Farm plants at the bottom of a hill to better collect water runoff. They also use organic practices and keep their soil covered at all times. These practices help to maintain overall soil health, she said.

“We also use a cover crop that is not for harvest and use compost on our soil,” Larkin-Wells said.

However, many of these methods are expensive practices, she said, and Spring Valley Student Farm can only afford them because the farm is entirely funded by UConn’s dining services.

“We can build up our soil health each year because we don’t have to break even; we’re an educational farm,” Larkin-Wells said. “It is expensive to maintain moisture in your soil; it is expensive to even stand a chance of surviving a drought like this.”

Other farmers in the area are forced to find other ways of maintaining some sense of financial stability while also having to deal with varying precipitation levels. Diane Dorfer, owner of Cobblestone Farm in Mansfield, Connecticut, is in this situation currently.

Cobblestone Farm relies on a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) system where customers pay up front for a share of the season’s harvest, Dorfer said. The CSA spans about 20 weeks during which it provides fresh produce for members.

CSA members at Cobblestone Farm pay either $400 for a half share or $780 for a full share, Dorfer said in an interview at her farm. A half share feeds about two people, and a full share feeds three to four people. Some vegetables included in the CSA are pick-your-own and others are pre-harvested prior to pick up. CSA members may choose from one of three days each week when they can pick up their produce, Dorfer said.

A CSA arrangement provides a financial cushion for farmers like Dorfer.

“The CSA cuts out variability in income, which is good for me because, frankly, shit can happen,” Dorfer said.

Dorfer acknowledged that paying up front before the harvest may seem like a risk to the consumer. Nonetheless, she said, “it has never happened that CSA members have not gotten the full value of their share.”

No local farmer escaped the drought this year. All experienced detrimental effects on their growing season, despite finding ways to work around the lack of precipitation.

“We’re not going to get the growing season back,” said Larkin-Wells, describing Spring Valley Student Farm’s losses this harvest season.

Dorfer also expressed difficulties with watering her crops this season. She said she stopped planting earlier than usual, and will therefore have fewer fall crops and fewer crops in general for farmer’s markets this fall.

“There comes a point where you have to decide what to water,” said Dorfer, also explaining her increased costs of irrigation this season. She is not the only person in the field of agriculture noting increased expenses nowadays.

Margaret Walsh is a senior ecologist at the United States Department of Agriculture. In a presentation, she said farmers continue to incur increased costs to combat drought.

“Climate change trends require that farmers learn to adapt,” Walsh said. “There are a lot of adaptations or options that farms can do, but this doesn’t make them cheap.”

Farmers throughout the nation – and even on a global level – are learning to change their practices, often with expensive agricultural tools or methods, said Dietz, whose work at the water resources institute has informed his perspective on innovations in agriculture.

“Added heat in the atmosphere is beginning to impact our food supply and part of the problem is learning to adapt to that now,” Dietz said. “For example, in Connecticut, farmers in the past didn’t need to rely on watering their crops through means other than precipitation; now they have to learn and implement other irrigation techniques almost immediately.”

However, farms like Spring Valley Student Farm that are not reliant on a profit, or like Cobblestone Farm that benefit from the added financial security of a CSA, are better able to adapt to varying levels of precipitation. Both Larkin-Wells and Dorfer said their growing seasons were not complete losses.

“The fact that we had anything still grow this season despite the drought is an illustration of what healthy soil can do,” Larkin-Wells said.

Farm manager Jessica Larkin-Wells instructs a group of student volunteers at Spring Valley Student Farm in Connecticut.
In the distance, Jessica Larkin-Wells, the farm manager at Spring Valley Student Farm, gives instructions to student volunteers on the farm’s property in Mansfield, Conn., on Sept. 23, 2022. (Madeline Papcun/University of Connecticut)
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