Northeast farmers grappling with weather fluctuations

Associated Press
Just-picked squash sit in a field near irrigation pipe at the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, VT.

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) - Vermont farmers are expected to face higher temperatures, more precipitation and a longer growing season due to climate change in the next 50 years, experts say.

With that projection, some of the impacts could be a higher risk of damaging floods, increased erosion and loss of nutrients from fields, wet soils as well as more need for irrigation, according to the University of Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Already farmers are grappling with some of those factors.

"Farmers are really dealing with uncertainty," said Joshua Faulkner, coordinator of the center's Farming and Climate Change program. "They can throw the normal expectation out the window in terms of weather. We're just getting wide swings year to year where we see drought one summer and then above average precipitation and heavy storms the next summer."

The Intervale Community Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Burlington, is already experiencing more prolonged dry spells, warmer temperatures, heavier rain events and a longer growing season, all of to which it's adjusting.

Despite the increased rainfall, the farm, which is on a flood plain, is irrigating more frequently. And farmers are watering crops more often, like squash and sweet potatoes, than it may have in the past.

Andy Jones of the Intervale Community Farm stands near a sweet potato crop at the farm in Burlington, VT. The farm is irrigating crops more frequently due to longer spans of dry weather.

"Flood plain soils, river bottom soils, they're going to drain. And then you couple that with high temperatures and dry conditions, irrigation is really a necessity for us," said Andy Jones, farm manager.

Earlier this week, the region went through a hot spell, with record temperatures coupled with no to little rainfall. South Burlington broke the record four days in a row with temperatures in the 90s and Wednesday was the latest 90-degree day in the year on record. And it's been dry — 18 days as of Friday — without measurable rain, according to the National Weather Service.

Temperatures in the Northeast overall have risen by 2 degrees and precipitation has increased by 5 inches between 1895 and 2011, according to UVM Extension.

"There's been more severe weather recently, there's more dry and lots of heavy rain," said Evan Harlow, of Harlow Farm, which grows organic produce in Westminster, and has been irrigating more often recently.

In northern Vermont, which is cooler and bit damper than other parts of the state, Pete's Greens doesn't irrigate outside crops.

"We work hard on keeping our soil in great shape with lots of organic matter. This holds water and gets us through dry spells," said Pete Johnson.

Not all vegetable farms need irrigation at this point, Jones said.

"But now in the future, will they? Maybe. I think that's the open question for everybody," he said.