Tag Archives: vegetables

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

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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

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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)

Conference Sneak Peek: Spotlight on Natalie Lounsbury, researcher, cover crops and no-till vegetable production

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natalie-212x201Natalie Lounsbury is the extension coordinator for a University of Maryland project on Low-Residue Winterkilled Cover Crops for No-till Vegetable Production.

She researched this system for her M.S. and is currently is continuing research and outreach from her family’s farm in (much colder) Maine. Prior to graduate school, she worked as an organic inspector and a vegetable farm manager.

You can keep up with her work at www.notillveggies.org.

Why do you want to join us Orillia?
I have been working for the past few years in Maryland and most of my work with farmers has been in the mid-Atlantic, but I’m excited to take my research on no-till vegetables and cover crops farther north!  

What can attendees expect to learn/take away from your workshop?
Some people have dubbed me “the radish lady” because I end up talking a lot about the primary cover crop we’ve used in our research: forage radish. Attendees will learn a lot about forage radish. But I also hope to present information that will help people start to think about tillage differently and how we can get cover crops to do some of the work for us in farming systems.

What do you enjoy/love about your work/research?
I love sharing a tool with farmers that really works and shows measurable advantages. I also just really love cover crops.

Are there any other fun or interesting facts or a story about your work that you’d like to share?
Even though forage radish is a cover crop, it is delicious and can be prepared many ways. In fact, I like it better than the cash crops like spinach that we work so hard to grow.

Natalie’s workshop:

December 6, 2014: No-till Vegetables: Harnessing the Power of Cover Crops
8:30 am – 10:00 am
Vegetable production generally involves numerous tillage events each season both for weed control and soil conditioning, but tillage has detrimental effects on soil quality. In some cases, cover crops can eliminate the need for tillage prior to vegetable seeding or transplanting. This workshop will give an introduction to both high-residue winter-hardy and low-residue winterkilled cover crops that can facilitate no-till production without herbicides. More detailed results and information on using forage radish as a cover crop prior to early spring vegetables will be presented. Topics of discussion will include: equipment, nutrient cycling, cover crop establishment, and soil quality.

Don’t miss the ecological conference of the year!
To learn more about Natalie, the other presenters and workshops, and to register,
visit https://conference.efao.ca/.

Celebrating 35 years of Learning, Farming and Sharing!