Tag Archives: climate change

The Future for Ecological Farming when Dealing with Climate Change: Brent Preston’s Story

This entry was posted in Issues and tagged , on by .

Written by Victoria Lesy, Matt Orton, Abdul-Rahim Abdulai, Nicole Unterlander, Abigail Van Reisen from the Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph; in collaboration with Thorsten Arnold, Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario.  

This story is part of a series of case studies documenting the experience of 6 EFAO member farmers as they adapt to climate change on their farms.

Brent Preston and his wife Gillian Flies have been running a certified organic farm in Creemore, Ontario, for over 15 years. Selling through a wholesaler to independent retailers and restaurants, their salad-based business brings great success as a result of hard work and dedication, access to a distribution infrastructure and urban buyer networks, and perseverance amidst trying times in the past and present. While many challenges come and go, Brent believes that, with a persistent and growing issue like climate change, they are only starting to learn how to live with it.


Brent and Gillian (The New Farm)

From increasing hotter summers to violent storms to delayed planting periods, there has been much variability and unpredictability for  their farm business over the years:

“The first decade we were farming we could pretty consistently grow spinach right through the summer. The last few years, however, we’ve had spinach crop failures in mid-season when we’ve planted in late June and July, even with heat-adapted varieties. This coming season we’re not even bothering with planting spinach in the middle of the summer. Just plant and sell it early and late season.”

So how is the everyday farm operation impacted by the situation? Brent stipulates that many aspects have gone downhill; for this reason, life as a farmer has continued to be full of uncertainty because every decision can be hindered by unknown consequences:

“With every decision that we make on our farm, we are thinking in the back of our minds: What is it going to be like to farm in 10 years? Are we going to be able to continue doing what we’re doing? Is the kind of extreme weather that we’re experiencing [going to] get worse? And how is it going to impact our business? So, for sure, [climate change is at the] top of [our] mind all the time in all of the decisions that we make, especially for investments.”

Gillian and Brent are continually adjusting their operations in order to adapt. If there is anything that keeps their farm moving, it’s their ability to accept new realities, look forward, and put in place new strategies through diligent planning and adopting an encompassing approach, both on and off the farm.


One of the salad fields. (The New Farm)

On the farm, both new practices and investments have been instrumental in this habituating process. To offset the impact of hot summers and the problems of plant success, Brent has invested in a new irrigation system to ensure constant availability of water. This is also complemented by deliberate efforts to move away from heat-sensitive crops. Beyond these, Brent thinks the future of farming lies in ecological approaches and we must change our understanding of the problem to appreciate the value of regenerative farming and carbon sequestration.

“For our farm, we see really clearly that regenerative farming is the future for us and for everybody. So we’re really really focusing on soil health, on protecting our soil, increasing the abundance and diversity of our soil life. [This is] our real main focus going forward because it’ll make our farm more climate resilient.”

Brent also notes that building resilience through these approaches will mean that farmers harness the power of partnership, working with each other and people beyond the agricultural community. Brent and his wife are currently making efforts to build partnerships that can facilitate carbon-friendly practices:

“This year we are going into partnership with a beef farmer near us to get his animals on our farm to graze our cover crops. [We are going to start using more of] these regenerative agricultural techniques that we’re learning about. We are moving towards all of those, partially because we know it’s going to make our farm more climate resilient, but also because we think we have a role to play in the global problem.”


Aerial view of the property. (The New Farm)

Climate change resilience cannot be left to the farmer alone to deal with; so collaborations need to go beyond the farm gate. Off-farm initiatives are critical to ensuring resilience, especially as climate change is more of a global problem, Brent believes. One way he makes this happen is by continuing to have conversations with fellow farmers, customers, organizations and others who are open to the issue.  The community is particularly useful; Brent enthusiastically noted, and that explains why the EFAO is such a great support system for ecological farmers in Ontario. Speaking thankfully, he describes:

“I think when dealing with climate change or any other issue for sustainable farmers, the community is really important. So joining organizations like the EFAO and taking advantage of the experience and knowledge of other farmers is [extremely] important. I think that within the small farm community in Ontario there is an incredible sense of community and of support and that farmers are incredibly generous with their knowledge.”

How can external actors like the EFAO and others help reinforce the already hard work being done by Brent and Gillian, and farmers like them? Operating within a niche system like the one ecological farmers are part of can be difficult, Brent noted, and situations get worse when they feel like they have been left to figure it out themselves. But the government, the University of Guelph, and others can learn from EFAO’s farmer-led research, which has proven useful to the community. Ultimately, working together with the sustainable farming community has the potential to enhance climate resilience.


Group shot in the hoop house of the event team for one of their fundraisers. (The New Farm)

Organic Farming and Climate Change: Leslie Moskovits’ Responsiveness to Climatic Challenges

This entry was posted in Issues and tagged , on by .

Written by Victoria Lesy, Matt Orton, Abdul-Rahim Abdulai, Nicole Unterlander, Abigail Van Reisen from the Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph; in collaboration with Thorsten Arnold, Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario.  

This story is part of a series of case studies documenting the experience of 6 EFAO member farmers as they adapt to climate change on their farms.

Leslie Moskovits and her partner Jeff Boesch operate Cedar Down Farm, a 6-acre market garden located outside of Neustadt. The farm is a certified organic year-round operation, growing a variety of vegetables in fields and greenhouses. Through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model, they serve families in Guelph and the surrounding areas of Hanover and Port Elgin. Cedar Down Farm has been operating for 10 years now; a period long enough to observe changes in weather conditions at the local level. Despite not having decades of experience to draw on, Leslie still points us to what she has seen as yearly variations:

We have been farming about 15 years. We moved to this farm 10 years ago. We just notice that the weather is pretty variable. So we’ve had pretty dry seasons followed by [a] really wet season, really hot seasons followed by [a] pretty cold season. So, yeah we definitely have observed variability year to year.”

With this variability, Leslie believes that precipitation has become more localized. The more local and variable climate becomes, the more challenges it poses to farmers. Leslie describes some of her experiences dealing with difficult weather conditions: “Yeah, occasionally we will have…especially too dry seasons. The weather is really hot and dry and we have experienced a reduction in yields from our crops.” Cedar Down Farm minimizes losses with irrigation. But, “for us, it’s impossible to irrigate quite the same as having regular rainfall.” Leslie and Jeff have also dug a larger pond to increase water storage for dry periods, partly to prevent exposure of weakened plants to pests. The inability to spray due to organic certification requirements means that Leslie needs to go the extra mile to remain resilient.


Irrigation pipes sit ready in the field at Cedar Down Farm. (Cedar Down Farm)

Besides the challenges posed by dryness, Leslie has to deal with challenges from wetness: “yeah there’s definitely years…  last year was the year that we would not be able to enter the farm because it was too wet.” This situation again requires responsiveness, and that is what Leslie continues to do. For Leslie, farming is about finding the right balance.  In this case, by relying on the strengths of diversity and ecological approaches:

Because of the way we farm we are able to offset some of the risks because we don’t only grow a single crop. By having a dozen crops we are not quite as affected if we lose one, while others are not affected at all! If we cannot get into the field one week or another, it will affect one single crop or a few rows of crops.” Diversification has worked well for Leslie and Jeff because it reduces the risk of overdependence on one revenue source.


One of Cedar Down Farm’s CSA boxes. Growing a variety of products means a lower financial risk – in a tough season where crops may fail, relying on just one or two could be disastrous. (Cedar Down Farm)

Another form of diversification employed by Cedar Down Farm is their marketing strategy. The use of CSA has proved vital to keeping the farm on track. The CSA model provides some level of security as it “offsets the kind of risks [that] other farming and distribution models” are prone to. Important to the pivotal role of CSA for Leslie is its ability to reduce climate-related stress that could drive some farmers into psychological issues, as they face uncertainties regarding cash flow and the bottom line at the end of the season.  Another thing with the CSA is that “there’s a social element which is that you’re trying to […] establish many relationships with consumers and get more committed to you… that you’re not at the risk of a dramatic loss in a season that will affect your ability to farm in the future.”

Leslie and Jeff go beyond just responding to changes in one specific aspect of the farm; they take a holistic approach to countering systemic stress like climate change, largely through the on-farm and off-farm strategies noted in this piece. “For us, climate variability is a big part of why we farm the way we do.” For Leslie, it is important to acknowledge climate change and respond accordingly: “Do we believe in climate change? Yes, of course, I mean, you have to believe that conditions may be a little worse.” So, the CSA and diversified farming, among other strategies, interplay to ensure they effectively respond to the changing climate they perceive may worsen over time.  If people ‘go out of their comfort zones’ to try these ecological approaches to farming, there is no reason it may not work for others if done right, she believes. Leslie also emphasizes the need for farmers to be part of a strong community that creates opportunities to learn from one another.


Leslie with her son Asher on the tractor. (Cedar Down Farm)

John Wise: Recounting the Experiences of a Sustainable Farm

This entry was posted in Issues and tagged , , , on by .

Written by Victoria Lesy, Matt Orton, Abdul-Rahim Abdulai, Nicole Unterlander, Abigail Van Reisen from the Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph; in collaboration with Thorsten Arnold, Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario.  

This story is part of a series of case studies documenting the experience of 6 EFAO member farmers as they adapt to climate change on their farms.

John Wise has been running Wiseacres farm since 1978 in Centreville, Ontario. The farm currently produces pastured pork and chicken and certified organic asparagus, wheat, and soybeans. From an initial operating capacity of about 350 acres, the farm now produces on about 200 acres owned and rented. Over the last 40 years, John claims that he has “seen it all with farming.” Through this piece, we will hear about John’s lived experiences with climate change within a long and successful farming career, as he thinks about cutting back. First, John talked to us about his view of climate change and how this is manifesting in his region:

“I’ve been farming as I say for about 40 years. I think it’s just the variability.  I mean you would get drought, you would get wet years, you would get hot years, and cold years. But it’s now that those variables are more extreme. For example in my area, Kingston recorded its hottest driest year on record in 2016. And in 2017 I’m not sure if it was a record-breaker but very close to record-breaking in terms of wetness. Not in total rain but in continuously moist soil conditions. You know every day seemed to have some precipitation, for weeks and weeks.  Weather is always variable but the swings are extreme now. And I say this not just from memory, but I have had a volunteer weather station here for Environment Canada since 1985. So I can actually look at the data and see how it’s varied.”


Cloudy skies at Wiseacres. (Wiseacres Organic Farm)

For John, the phenomenon of climate variability is rooted in experience as well as in the data available from the weather station on his farm. Variability is having a number of impacts on his operation – both on crops and animals. He recounts challenges when growing soybeans:

“One of the things that are problematic particularly with organics is when you get into a dry spell and your only weed control is cultivation. I grow my soybeans in 30-inch rows, you get to the point in early July when it is time for your second cultivation but it’s so dry. You don’t want to go in there and expose the damp layers of soil by turning them up because you’re just drying out the field. The weeds are getting kind of dormant and you think, ‘Hey that doesn’t look so bad,’ but then maybe you catch a thunderstorm a couple of weeks later, not enough to grow the crop much, but enough to get the weeds going. Before you know it, despite the drought, the weeds are taller than the soybeans and you’re thinking, ‘Oh I should have cultivated!’ You know what I mean? It’s that sort of dilemma you’re faced with in a drought.”

His challenges with animals are similar. A big issue is the stress chickens face from the heat, particularly of concern for older birds. From the extensive dryness to long wet days, “it has been a headache for the farm.” A positive step was to give up grass fed beef and plant the rougher pasture land to trees, which he did this spring. He likes the idea of creating a long-term carbon sink on a few acres. “Once a long term pasture reaches its carbon capacity, it doesn’t sequester much more carbon. At that point, the methane from the cattle makes the pasture a net carbon source.”


Hot weather is hard on the chickens. (Wiseacres Organic Farm)

As he looks back gracefully at a long farming career, John now wonders if he would have had the drive and motivation to continue if he was younger and just beginning to farm today. This is largely due to “harder weather conditions,” but when recalling his memories and experiences, John also points to a positive impact that has come out of climate change: the collective voice. Climate change has shaped his farming community and moved them towards a collective voice as they all fight against one common challenge. At the very least, it gives farmers “something in common.

A shared problem and shared goals at the community level still leave him with the need for individual farm level adaptations. John is always looking at measures that raise the farm’s resiliency before looking outward for support. Some the measures include very traditional recommendations – changes in planting time and preparing for the uncertainty. But there are also more unconventional and innovative approaches. For instance, John recounts how frustration and lack of options led him to dunk the heat stressed chickens in water to cool them down: a technique that later proved to be sustainable for a small farm like his.

At 69, John is almost cutting back on farming, but he has gained a lot of agricultural wisdom that he can share with others. He emphasizes the relevance of information in dealing with these challenging times. For John, incoming farmers will benefit if relevant information is made available by organizations like EFAO, Universities, and others. But to sit and wait for information may not always be the right move – John believes that farmers need to be proactive and curious, and not be shy to ask others for relevant knowledge that can help them solve current challenges. In his opinion, if we take knowledge generation and dissemination seriously then we are better placed to deal with some of the challenges of climate change.


(Wiseacres Organic Farm)

‘Feeling Good’ in a Changing Climate: The Story of Isabelle Spence-Legault

This entry was posted in Issues, Uncategorized and tagged , on by .

Written by Victoria Lesy, Matt Orton, Abdul-Rahim Abdulai, Nicole Unterlander, Abigail Van Reisen from the Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph; in collaboration with Thorsten Arnold, Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario.  

This story is part of a series of case studies documenting the experience of 6 EFAO member farmers as they adapt to climate change on their farms.

Field Good Farms is a biointensive 5-acre vegetable operation in Cache Bay, located near Lake Nipissing in Ontario’s north. Isabelle Spence-Legault and her husband Ryan Spence established the farm in 2011 and have been farming full time since 2012. They have two greenhouses dedicated to growing vegetables. The two relish selling everything directly to customers – around 90% through a CSA – complemented with online marketing and sales to local restaurants. Like many other farmers, climate variability is one of the biggest threats to the farm. Isabelle does not have to look back far to remember how climate variability has influenced their operation: “I would say last summer was probably one of the most challenging since becoming experienced farmers.” The season was hot and dry, and soil moisture was not able to support plant growth. This situation was compounded by operating within a majority conventional farming community that does not share similar values and could not offer advice.


Rows of beans planted in between rows of potatoes, with a heavy buckwheat buffer at the edge of the field. “We use no pesticides on our farm (not even organically approved), so the many rows of potatoes are rid of the colorado potato beetle by hand (we shake the plants into 5 gal buckets we carry along with us). The beneficials get scooped out before we fill the bucket with water.” (Field Good Farms)

Climate impacts go beyond seasonal variability and also influence cycles of pest pressure, which according to Isabelle has equally positive and negative consequences. With last year’s dry weather that weakened plants, bug pressure is mounting. But in cycles of wet summers, she has also seen beneficial thrive and help in their production.

But climate change also changes the everyday experiences of farmers and their mental stability and resilience: “Another important point is that it doesn’t only have an impact on the flora and fauna, but it also has an impact on the psyche of the farmer. My partner and I have been working so hard dealing with unexpected issues. We cannot really predict much. It makes it challenging. Not just for production management but also for the well-being of the staff working outside.”

The situation is concerning, especially for ecological farmers who rely on manual labour where conventional operators use chemical inputs. She recounts how other farmers are making compromises with their ecological values when struggling with the impacts of climatic variability, by ‘switching to safer models.’ This includes the use of biodegradable plastics on the farm, which they shy away from.


Head lettuce on straw mulch. “Head lettuce is superior to the much-more lucrative cut greens, but we prefer the fact that we don’t have to bag the head lettuce (plastic bags are yucky), and that they store longer in people’s fridge, which we hope translates to less food waste. Also, straw mulch is a great option, and seems to do just as well for us than what we used to use, biodegradable plastic mulch, which has been phased out of our farm (we use landscape fabric to smother in advance of planting perennials to avoid tillage, and in our high tunnels, but avoid it as much as possible)” (Field Good Farms)

With all the concerns, there are ways farmers can continue to be ecologically resilient, Isabelle opines. To “feel good” amidst climate change, many practical measures have been put in place and she plans for further investments. For example, planting approximately 4500 trees to balance their microclimate while sequestering carbon, planting food producing perennials adapted to their climate, and building improved greenhouses for transplants to support stronger seedlings. They also plan to dig a pond that will help store water for hot summers like the one in 2018.

Despite all these measures, Isabelle finds that resilience is a matter beyond the farm gate that requires a holistic approach. Their CSA marketing is one of their strategies that reduces marketing uncertainty and her anxiety of thinking about the sales, so she can better focus on production: “But generally, [we are] just trying to build in more resilience; the CSA helps with that as it erases some of the lack of understanding which comes with standing on the other side of the booth selling a commodity. The result of this is an inability to have an immediate dialogue with the consumer about best ecological practices. We can have that dialogue with clients of our CSA, and can invite them to the farm to see some of the things we talk about in action.”


The hardworking farmers behind Field Good Farms; Isabelle (right) and Ryan (left) (Field Good Farms)

If anything has proven vital to Field Good Farms, then it is the CSA; but how can other farmers also become resilient within our challenging climate? Isabelle has simple advice: there is a lot of knowledge out there, complimented by a buzzing new interest in agriculture by some youth. Farmers must take advantage of this mix of old and new and share knowledge on how to become better at what they do and love. And it is important to increase resilience and restore farm ecologies: “There are models out there, no-till models like the one at Singing Frogs Farm in California. I can empathize with the amount of pressure put on us as farmers. All sorts of constraints seem to bind us, but, if we aren’t creating a regenerative model and sticking to sustainability peppered with convenience, then we aren’t advancing the food system, which, beyond food production, should be our goal.”

If farmers are open to the endless possibilities of today, then they can thrive and build resilient operations. Nonetheless, in these times of overall uncertainty, external support for learning, knowledge exchange, research, and access to investment capital area vital necessity, as well as funding for research and capacity building for organizations like the EFAO and universities. However, it would prove very useful if knowledge generation and dissemination were generally more relevant to farmers through farm-based research that meets the needs of those who use it.


Isabelle and Ryan’s daughter Madeline during garlic cleaning (Field Good Farms)


An Ontario Farmer Facing the Perils of Climate Change: Kristine Hammel

This entry was posted in Farmer-led Research, Issues, Uncategorized and tagged on by .

Written by Victoria Lesy, Matt Orton, Abdul-Rahim Abdulai, Nicole Unterlander, Abigail Van Reisen from the Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph; in collaboration with Thorsten Arnold, Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario.

This story is part of a series of case studies documenting the experience of 6 EFAO member farmers as they adapt to climate change on their farms.

Kristine Hammel and her husband know from first-hand experience the strain that climate change puts on farmers. Kristine runs a small-scale diversified farm with her husband, Thorsten Arnold, in Grey County, Ontario. Their operation is made up of 1.5 acres of market garden and 20 acres of hay fields. Since 2010 when they started their operation, they have employed diverse marketing models including direct marketing to consumers through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), selling through a local online-farmers market co-operative (Eat Local Grey Bruce), and at farmers markets. They also sell to restaurants and sell sheep meat directly to consumers.



Manifestations of climate change and variability is something Kristine lives with every year as they prepare to kickstart the farm season.

“The last three years have been completely out of whack,” says Kristine. “2016 was extremely dry, [and] 2017 was extremely wet. 2018 started dry for about two months, May to July two and a half months, and then turned into continuous wet from August to now – from desert to rice paddy! So there does not seem to be a sort of moderate or average anymore. Fluctuations probably balance out over the whole year, in terms of the same amount of precipitation that we are getting, but we just happen to have now two or three months where we are not getting anything or where we are getting it every day.”

She added that changes go beyond rainfall as temperatures have also been unpredictable. “It tends to be very hot for very long or then quite cool for very long. This year [2018], we had a lot of snow in late April and a cold and late cool start to the season. Then June and July were very hot and totally dry. Weather doesn’t seem to swing quickly from one to the other; we seem to get stuck in extended weather patterns where we get one thing and then we get it for a long time and quite severely.”


What struck Kristine goes beyond the variability and unpredictable weather conditions they face each season. Climate change impacts have become very much localized so that it becomes difficult to rely on information from weather stations which are far apart from each other.

“Yes, that also seems to be part of it: once I got soaked 2 km from home during the dry spell, but had no rain at home. Then, I got rain much earlier than people six kilometres to the east of me. It seems to be quite patchy.”

The localized nature of climate makes planning difficult for most farmers, and for many, this means a growing threat to their operations with declining yields. For Kristine, they have lost yields in the last couple of years because things have either been too dry or too wet.

The impact of climate variability for farmers goes beyond the farm and their pockets as Kristine recounts how the changes are having a toll on their physical and mental health: “If it’s 35 degrees and humid, it is very different working conditions than 25 degrees, so its physically exhausting and it’s very stressful.”



To most farmers, giving up is not an option on the table: they love their jobs and have so much emotional and physical connection with their land. For Kristine, it is all about being innovative and devising new practices to better cope with the situation, while ensuring their operations have minimal environmental impacts. Such efforts include her investments in new infrastructure including greenhouses to reduce dependence on weather conditions, creating drainage facilities, and more localized approaches like digging a pond in the future to store water and attenuate the microclimate. However, Kristine thinks being resilient in the age of climate change means farmers must also look beyond the farm, a situation she describes as diversifying their operations. She resorts to making use of her skills beyond the farm by organizing workshops and training for home gardeners, as well as growing transplants for sale. Kristine’s efforts to diversify her revenue streams demonstrate a proactive approach to mitigating the effects of climate change.

Despite going the extra mile to become more resilient to climate change, Kristine fears for the future as she thinks conditions will only become worse. She highlights the need for external supports in order for individual farmers to be able to thrive, including a role for government and research institutions. Kristine sees education through experiential and demonstration models led by farmers as a way to help farms become resilient to climate change, and this cannot be achieved without financial support. She explains that it is only through directed farmer-led research that we can produce impactful knowledge responsive to the farm community.