CR Lawn, 2011
After the past season, climate change is impossible
to deny and hard to overlook. During the 39 days from Aug. 27 through
Oct. 5, I logged roughly 18 inches of rain in Colrain, MA, an annual
rate of 168.6 inches, the stuff of tropical rainforests, not New
England. Donna Dyrek in Hartland, ME, 4–5 hours distant, had
20.75 inches total for Aug. and Sept, some folks in PA and southern
New York State much more. Then, on Oct. 9, four days after the high
pressure that finally brought clearing and our first frosts to the
hill country, Boston recorded 87°, a whopping five degrees higher
for that date than the old record that had stood for 69 years. Less
than 3 weeks later, Colrain got 17 inches of snow!
We used to say that if you don’t like the weather
in New England, wait five minutes. Never true, now less so than
ever. Instead, stalled fronts are hanging around for many days,
long extended lows of humid wet weather, followed by highs that
build for days and days into extreme humidity erupting into violent
serial thunderstorms. I had at least five fronts deposit more than
three inches of rain in 2011: exactly what the climate change models
predicted, more and more extreme weather, less and less moderation.
Though a lucky few farmers had bountiful crops in 2011, many more
endured unexpected difficulties. Since I moved to MA, this makes
three consecutive extreme weather years, only one of which produced
Common Ground Fair invited television weather personality
Lou McNally to talk about the implications of climate change for
growers. McNally believes climate change is real, but claims that
in the last 30 years, Maine cooled by 0.4° while the rest of New
England warmed by 1.6°. Except for the past three years, I lived
year-round and farmed in Maine and cannot believe McNally is correct.
Cooler than 30 years ago? No way! Winter lows almost never approach
past levels, summer highs breach 90° far more frequently, and the
first fall frosts have receded 2–3 weeks. Turns out McNally,
though he had access to the most advanced climate modeling, wasn’t
even living in the state several of the years he broadcast weather
here. So he probably missed the Mar. 22, 2010, ice-out at Lake Auburn,
ME, 8 days earlier than any recorded over the previous 136 years!
To gain a longer perspective, I consulted a volume
put out by the U.S. Patent Office, the predecessor of the USDA,
discovering that the high temperature recorded in Gardiner, ME,
in 1858 for the entire month of August was only 77°. Two other Maine
locations weren’t much warmer. Unthinkable now!
Dr. Alan K. Betts, who has studied climate change
in Vermont since 1960, documents on his marvelous website http://alanbetts.com
that the growing season for frost-sensitive plants has increased
by about 3.7 days per decade. The duration that small lakes remain
frozen in winter has changed even more, averaging nearly 7 days
fewer per decade, a decrease of nearly a month over the past 40
years! The first lilac bloom has advanced by a slower, but still
significant, 1.6 days per decade.
How to respond to climate change? Take McNally’s
ideas, good as far as they go, deeper. He said get to know farmers
one climate zone removed, study what and when they are planting
and diversify your crops. I would add:
• Diversify your range of crops. When I started
farming in 1973 I had 100 frost-free days on average, 110 at best.
In Colrain I now have 40 more, some from moving that one zone south,
many from climate change. Crops once impossible or marginal that
are now likely winners include peanuts, yams, longer-season melons,
peppers, winter squash, and Yard Long beans.
• Also consider growing staple crops that have
been neglected in New England, such as heritage wheat and rice or
quinoa and grain amaranth.
• Diversify seasonal windows and successions.
Instead of a mere 2–3 weeks of fresh sweet corn, the longer
season permits me 8–10 weeks if I start in early May with
a short-season variety and keep sowing till July 4. I can even make
winter squash and melon successions, a marvelous hedge against extreme
weather. If it didn’t work the first time, try again. Autumn
is getting longer and more temperate, allowing harvests of greens,
broccoli and cauliflower way into November. For many crops targeting
the fall harvest gives better results than fighting fickle spring
weather and summer heat waves.
• Study phenology and sow accordingly. Phenology
looks at natural events like when the first robin is sighted, peepers
start peeping, trees leaf out, lilacs and apples bloom and how changes
in these dates relate to climate change. I often sow sweet corn
at apple bloom, for example. Phenology is not 100% foolproof, apple
trees sometimes make mistakes, but, in general, peepers, birds and
trees are more sentient about nature than humans, and they provide
clues to how the climate is changing and what it implies for our
• Moderate the effects of extreme weather.
My partner Eli saved at least one of our beds from Irene-induced
flooding by diverting excess water to make a pond, where it is available
• Use season-extending devices such as greenhouses,
hoophouses, high and low tunnels, caterpillars. Those of us who
prefer to be outdoors in the elements won’t find them fully
acceptable substitutes for reliable weather, but they can mitigate
the risks climate change will bring.
• McNally advised us not to listen to climate
deniers, instead to just do what we have to do for ourselves to
adjust. Yes, but that is not enough. Climate is the ultimate commons,
its effects, both good and bad, shared by all. Policy decisions
affect our climate. If the deniers have their way and we lose opportunities
to address potential problems, all of us will suffer, and our own
efforts to ameliorate the effects will be insufficient. Earth can
be Heaven or Hell. It is up to us.