The world is facing a climate crisis and the changes this brings is dramatically impacting farmers across the world. As temperatures rise and rainfall becomes increasingly unpredictable, production is dropping, and businesses are struggling. However, in the United States, climate change still divides opinion. Many still question its scientific validity, including the President who said climate change was ‘an expensive hoax’ and pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement. However, in opposition to those climate-deniers, there are passionate and engaged people across America who are desperately working to keep us within the two-degree Celsius limit. In light of that division, we wanted to talk to farmers across the US to understand how they view climate change and what steps (if any) they were taking to address it.
The SFT will run this series over the coming months, featuring a diverse range of American farmers. This week, we interviewed Nate Drummond who is the owner of Six River Farm in Maine along with his partner Gabrielle Gosselin.
Six River Farm is a diverse organic vegetable farm located on the shores of Merrymeeting Bay in Bowdoinham, Maine. Nate and Gabrielle both have roots in New England. They work with a small crew of employees, to grow a wide range of produce which they sell seasonally at local farmers markets, restaurants and natural food stores.
Nate and Gabrielle started Six River Farm after apprenticing at Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle, New York. First, leasing 13 acres and then purchasing a further seven, they have been operating since 2007. The farm’s fields extend right to the edge of the bay and are certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The farm uses green manures to build fertility, including oats and clover, which add nutrients and organic matter to the soil. The key to the ecological sustainability of the farm and the healthiness of its produce is the health of the soil, which is rich in nutrients and high in organic matter and biological activity.
What are your biggest concerns about climate change and its effect on your farm in particular?
There’s an immediate short-term concern vis-à-vis our current cropping and farm production that is mostly related to the increasing unpredictability of weather and heavy rain events. Here in the northern US, the jet stream is becoming less stable and we tend to get wide temperature swings in the fall and early spring, as the jet stream sort of snakes around. You can all of a sudden have record low temperatures in November followed by record warm temperatures, followed by record low temperatures. These kinds of weather events are not necessarily cataclysmic to the farm, but they put a lot of stress on the everyday production – so you’re scurrying to get crops out of field because it’s going to get super cold, and then three days later, it thaws out and gets warm again and it’s really muddy and crops that were trying to over-winter have their root systems disturbed. Obviously, we’re a vegetable farm and a lot of our product in the field is very perishable and relatively fragile to extreme cold, extreme levels of rain and flooding. So, on a day-to-day basis, these shifts add a layer of stress and financial implication.
Also, every year there’s a new pest for vegetable crops that is making its way further north, further east, with potential impacts – we have a swede midge that is affecting our cauliflower crops; similarly, we have a leek moth that is just a state away. These pests are a combination of globalisation and global warming. Many of them have emerged in other parts of the world – they were brought over through international trade and they are moving because of climate change. We’re seeing lots of varying challenges but you can’t really point your finger at it and say, this is because of climate change – it’s an accumulation.
Then there is a larger more existential question: if this is the new normal, if this is now, then what’s 10 years, what’s 20 years, what’s 30 years? For Gabrielle (my wife) and I, this is still within our farming lifetime and we have children and as a farmer, if our children were in a position where that was what they wanted to do, it’s really hard to say with any honesty that our farm will be viable in 30 years. We’re located on an inland bay and there are [potential] flooding scenarios. Is it all going to be under water in five years? No, but without concrete action, the future looks very suspect.
Has there been any benefit to you from being further north?
Certainly, in relation to historical climate norms going back 30 years or so, we have a longer growing season and milder winters which has been beneficial for the range of crops we produce and the seasons in which we produce them. Our farm stays busy through Christmas and we do some winter growing in greenhouses and can coax some hardier crops along in December. Our summers are also getting warmer and that gives us some pest issues, but they’re within norms – it’s not like being in Texas where you can’t grow things in the summer. But there’s a slow shift; Maine of today is what New York was 30 years ago. We plan that we’ll have mild falls, but our springs are still pretty cool and unpredictable – but there are definitely some benefits.
Have you had any particularly severe weather events that are climate change related?
It’s always tough to tell because weather has always had extreme events, and sometimes it’s more the frequency. The most memorable storm was one that just missed us – I think it was Hurricane Irma. It ended up tracking just to the west of us and we got some decent winds but we’re definitely out of the hurricane belt, so by the time these types of storms get to us, they’re not nearly as severe. The areas to the west of the storm – Vermont and upstate New York – got tremendous amounts of rain. There were a number of farms in Vermont, in particular, that were similar to us, who had very, very serious flooding damage. It was September, when everyone had lots and lots of crops in the field, so it was very illustrative to watch what a storm like that, if you were in the wrong spot, could do. You learn that, oh, if your farm floods, you’re not legally allowed to sell any of that produce, even if it recovers – flooded produce is deemed ‘unsafe’. So, we saw what the extreme scenario could be, but we haven’t had the single event that floods the farm or blows over the greenhouses.
What have you done to prepare for more aggressive changes in weather and climate as global warming continues to intensify and what have you done as a business or individually to prepare?
We haven’t gone down the road of doing things like lifting up old buildings – it really isn’t financially feasible. As we’ve been able to build new infra-structure, we’ve tried to site it in a location that is less prone to flooding. What we’ve tried to do more, is that when we plant out the farm in terms of production, we keep it highly diverse as a way to provide a level of in-built insurance. We lengthen the growing season, we have a lot of different crops, we’ve shifted crops onto raised beds to alleviate heavy rain events. We’ve tried to build as much internal diversity into our production, into our sales, and into everything on the farm so that we’re not in a scenario where all of the crops that we’re depending on for our income for the whole year, are in the field ready to harvest at one time and then, damn, it’s all gone. Our exposure at any one time, is maybe only going to ever be a quarter of our total revenue potential. On a short-term level, that’s how we’ve managed the unpredictability of it all.
What do you think needs to be done to help mitigate climate change and how do you see farming playing a positive role in this?
I’m honestly a little bit sceptical of the idea that, somehow, we can individually attack climate change through our purchasing or individual decisions – like, ride a bicycle more. This is important and there should be a moral force that motivates people, but we need large-scale economic transformations. You need government to step in on a policy level. It’s hard for us [as farmers] to give up our tractors and stop using diesel fuel unless, say, there is carbon tax that triples the cost of diesel. It’s really difficult to make those kinds of decisions unless there’s an economic incentive to do it. You need to have a far-reaching policy that is making carbon expensive and alternatives available.
I also think, to some degree, you need to have farming buy-in, as a significant sector of the economy. At the moment, farming exists in this place that has wide-spread support from different sectors. We’re obviously a very polarised country now, but agriculture doesn’t seem to be a really polarised sector. Some people rail against large industrialised agriculture, but most people view agriculture, and particularly farmers, in a positive way. Like in our local community, we have neighbours that are very conservative people, but they love the small local farms because it connects them to their own family histories and memories. But we also have newer arrivals in our community that are more liberal or progressive, and for them, local food and the idea of a transformative agriculture is also very appealing. To some degree, farmers are better positioned to get people to listen to them, maybe more so than an activist – it affects our livelihood, and we pay attention to the weather, so when a farmer says, this is changing, it’s hard to say, ‘no, you’re just making that up’.
What is your major priority for future US farm policy?
I’m more involved in local ag organisations here in Maine and on a local level, interacting with our congressional members as far as issues with the Farm bill. For US farm policy at the moment, you have this weird underlying awareness that [climate change] is an issue that is getting more and more significant, and that everybody knows it, but without a willingness in those at the top to even allow for talking about it. So, when you talk to USDA local staff members – and every farmer – they are fully aware of the reality, but it’s discussed in all these coded ways.
Farm policy is such a huge monolith. As important as agriculture is as a sector and as an important contributor to increased carbon in the atmosphere, it really has to come from engagement with state agencies and other actors; [it’s for them] to step in and say here are the alternatives and here is the funding. It needs to be a concerted effort with a clear vision. At the moment, it’s a hodge-podge – this organisation is offering a grant for solar panels and this organisation is offering a low-income loan for increasing energy efficiency, but it’s up to the farmers to search out these offers and see if they are appropriate for them. There’s no USDA agency saying that they are going to coordinate the change in farms towards a low carbon future – which is where we need to get to.