Though students have still enjoyed their fair share of vegetables from Book and Plow Farm in Valentine Dining Hall this semester, this year’s yield is smaller than in the past due to a drought that has affected the Northeast in recent months. Fortunately, the farm still achieved a successful harvest — the drought devastated only a selection of crops. But the misfortune nevertheless presents a chance to reflect on the practices Book and Plow uses to stay resilient in a changing climate.
The drought afflicting the farm has impacted the entire New England area for the past few months. In June, Hampshire County received 2.54 inches of rainfall. The following months had 3.05 inches of rain and 2.78 inches, respectively, just a little over half of what’s typically expected for that time of year.
According to Maida Ives, manager of farm education and operations at Book and Plow, conditions at the farm seemed drier than usual beginning in June.
“[Typically] early June and mid-June, we transplant [vegetables] in the ground, and at that point, they really need a lot of water and support to get established,” Ives said.
The lack of rainfall has decreased crop yields for a number of vegetables, including onions, potatoes, and winter squash.
This year, Ives has also observed a noticeable decrease in the size of the crops. Due to a lack of water during the growth period, the potato plants, for example, produced smaller spuds than usual in addition to a lower yield. In fact, farmers at Book and Plow only harvested about 400 pounds of potatoes this summer, Ives said — drastically lower than the usual 1,500-pound figure, a yield great enough to fulfill the demand of both Valentine Dining Hall and orders from the farm’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) group, which is made up of individuals subscribed to consistently receive seasonal vegetables from the farm.
The reduced crop yield means that, this year, some of the Val produce demand ordinarily met by Book and Plow will have to be supplied by other local farms instead.
The lower yield does not reflect mismanagement on the part of the Book and Plow farmers. In fact, they met the challenge posed by the drought quite well.
During the summer, rather than planting and prepping as usual, Book and Plow farmers spent hours setting up drip irrigation and overhead sprinklers across four acres of crops to maximize their water intake. To further conserve water, these overhead sprinklers aren’t used during the heat of the day, when much of the water released would evaporate.
This type of adaptation is nothing new for Ives. For as long as she has been farming, “the topic of climate change and [its] unpredictability — what you can expect at certain times of the year — has always been present in the work.”
Despite the drought, “[o]ur goals haven't changed: we're here to support students, build healthy soil, and grow quality vegetables,” Ives said. “We are always adapting to produce food in this changing climate and protect our soil through both drought and extreme rain situations.”
In addition to their preparation this summer to preempt the effects of the drought, Book and Plow has long employed strategies to conserve water. For one, the use of organic mulch to grow crops helps reduce both the water evaporation and soil erosion, while also increasing water infiltration. Book and Plow farmers are also mindful of over-irrigation, which in addition to depleting the water supply can have unpredictable effects on the regional climate. Lastly, the use of cover crops — crops planted to protect the soil rather than as produce — helps the fields maintain moisture and reduces erosion.
And in addition to augmenting water conservation, farmers at Book and Plow grow a array of crops — carrots, lettuce, peppers, and more — which help circulate nutrients and microbes in the soil, and provide resilience in the case of events like droughts.
The farm has also long selected disease- or cold-resistant seeds that are able to grow high-quality vegetables despite unpredicted shifts in the weather. Compared to other farms in the region, this has helped Book and Plow avoid some of the worst impacts of the drought, Ives said.
In the greater New England area, farmers who grow hay and straw, corn, or winter squash felt the drought’s strongest effects. Most of those farmers didn’t have pre-existing irrigation systems in these large fields, and they weren’t able to cover the costs of installing new ones.
And while the drought killed off many crops, heavy rain in April also did damage, since it’s very difficult to remove the excess water from the fields. The alternation between drought and flooding — the increase in extreme weather due to human-induced climate change in general — in New England poses a significant threat to the area’s farms.
While Book and Plow has managed the situation well, the drought is indicative of some of the more severe consequences of climate change. One of these is reduced access to water in many parts of the world. Climate change affects precipitation patterns, meaning that some regions now receive more precipitation than previously, while other regions receive far less. This disparity results in poorer water quality, because more precipitation leads to more runoff, which can become contaminated with fertilizers and promote the growth of algae that make people sick.
In light of the global nature of the effects of climate change, Ives encourages students to be aware of the complex ways in which agriculture is burdened by human-caused changes to the environment. For students at the college, Ives says, “the only suggestion I have is to continue to learn.”