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Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) promotes local food knowledge, production and market opportunities for farmers and community members throughout our region.

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A Changing Climate Impacts Vermont Agriculture

Phil Gurley

By Garland Mason

In their high-tunnel at Radical Roots Farm, these tomatoes are protected from adverse weather as well as certain insect pests and plant diseases/Radical Roots photo

In their high-tunnel at Radical Roots Farm, these tomatoes are protected from adverse weather as well as certain insect pests and plant diseases/Radical Roots photo

Call it what you want, and blame it on what you’d like, but talk to any long time farmer, and they’re certainly tell you that the climate – and consequently,  agriculture – are changing in Vermont. Farmers are battling new issues and taking on greater risk in this changing climate. Faced with new and unpredictable weather patterns, pests, and diseases, farmers need to stay up-to date and knowledgeable about dealing with these new challenges.

Last week RAFFL invited Anne Hazelrigg to present to growers about the evolving world of insect pests and crop diseases. From my perspective as an avid home gardener I was fascinated by the discussion of the different pests, fungi, molds, and viruses affecting my plants and I even got some tips about how to keep them at bay. Ann’s lecture also made me think about the broader issue of growing food with the ever increasing effects of climate change.

Throughout the talk Ann continually noted how much things have changed during the two decades she’s been at her job as a plant pathologist for UVM Extension. She explained that many of the plant diseases that would have been the unusual exception twenty years ago can now be seen in Vermont annually. One example of this phenomenon is late blight.

Late blight is a disease of the solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants. Late blight has been wreaking havoc on agricultural crops for centuries. In fact, late blight (coupled with a myriad of political and social issues) is to blame for the Irish potato famine of the 1800’s. In Vermont, late blight has been a sporadic issue in years past. The disease requires a cool, wet climate that hasn’t been typical to Vermont’s growing season historically, although these conditions haveoccurred in Vermont nearly every growing season since 2009.

Although historically the disease has been associated with potato crops, in recent years in Vermont tomato crops have been most heavily damaged by the disease. Blight is airborne and travels to Vermont from the southeastern United States where it is able to survive in the soil through the mild winters. Once it has arrived on a farm or in a garden, blight can complete its lifecycle within five days, completely destroying the affected plants in the process.

There are a number of approaches farmers can take to protect their plants. One of the most effective ways to be spared the devastation of late blight is to grow tomatoes in high tunnels. I know a few farmers that have already turned to this method of production and have completely abandoned the production of field tomatoes citing the ever-increasing risk of complete devastation from blight and other diseases and pests made more common by the impacts of climate change.

If we continue on our current trajectory, Vermont summers are predicted to more closely resemble those of northwest Georgia. Although this may seem like an improvement to our ability to grow local foods year-round, unfortunately climate change will also severely decrease the predictability of our weather from season-to-season.

Climate change means more severe and unusual weather patterns which will make growing crops more risky. We all remember two years ago in 2011 when spring flooding devastated many low-lying farms. Then the arrival of Tropical Storm Irene that same year finished the job by causing a flood that statistically should only occur every 500 years. Last year we had an unusually hot and dry summer, and this year we have been breaking records for the amount of rainfall.

Changing climate and unpredictable weather will force us to carefully consider the future of farming in Vermont. In last week’s talk, Hazelrigg predicted that an increasing number of farmers will be turning to high tunnel production where moisture, temperature, disease and pests can be more carefully controlled regardless of the weather occurring outside of the plastic dome.

So what will agriculture in Vermont look like in 100 years? A warmer climate will undoubtedly result in a longer growing season and an increase in the types of crops Vermont farmers will be able to grow. Unfortunately, with the warming climate comes increased pest and disease pressure that Vermont farmers have not previously faced. Perhaps our fields will be scattered with high tunnels and the flood plains that had historically made for great farmland will be off-limits for agriculture.

The resiliency of Vermont’s farmers will continue to be tested but with some innovation and creativity, which Vermonters sure do seem to have an abundance of, Vermont farmers will actually be better poised cope with the effects of climate change than their monocropping counterparts from other parts of the country.

Garland Mason works for the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, heading up the New Farmer Initiative and Farm to School and Institution activities. She lives and farms in West Tinmouth.

Originally published in the Rutland Herald.