Farming Through Uncertainty

It is getting harder to grow food, and few people understand that better than Dr. Rachel Schattman. She’s always been a farmer, and now leads the University of Maine’s Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Fellowship, a multi-year experiment that pairs academic scientists with dozens of farmers to help plan adaptation strategies to thrive in an increasingly unpredictable climate.

“There really is no one size fits all fix. Adaptation has to be tailored to each individual business and location,” Schattman said. “The people I interact with through that program are creative and curious and seeking to understand the ecology of their farm better and I think that is the secret to effective adaptation.”

Dr. Schattman oversees four different programs within the fellowship: agroforestry in the northeast, women and nonbinary vegetable growers, row crop producers in the midwest, and dairy farmers in New England.

Vegetable farmers face many issues from flooding to drought, freezes, disease, and pests, all of which are influenced by our changing climate. Wet weather can make vegetables more susceptible to diseases, and last year was also one of the wettest growing seasons on record in the northeastern United States. Late spring freezes can damage fruit trees, as happened last year when a large  many peach trees in the northeast did not bear fruit. Livestock farmers are concerned with reliably growing grass for grazing, and the rising cost of hay.

“Everybody’s experience is a little bit different,”Schattman said. “The margins on a lot of agricultural businesses are very thin so there’s not a lot of play there.”

Severe flooding on her first farm at the Intervale Center cooperative in Burlington inspired Dr. Schattman to look at climate adaptation strategies more closely. Her fields flooded for two of the three years she worked there, so she decided to leave and buy a  plot of land on higher ground, but with much different terrain. Schattman had to learn how to farm in rocky, dense clay soil, instead of the soft deep topsoil in the Winooski River floodplain, while working on her doctoral dissertation and traveling around the state interviewing farmers about their experience with climate change.

“It’s been a helpful thing, knowing how to talk to a community on the ground, managing the land, and speaking a similar language,” Schattman said. “I know what they’re up against. I think that’s the only way I could have had the academic career I have.” 

Diversification is key to a climate resilient growing operation, however, smaller more diversified farms often have trouble selling their produce in the commercial market.

“The ability to get produce to market and have the markets be somewhat reliable is huge,” Schattman said. “As businesses that have such small margins, I don’t think it’s fair to ask farmers to shoulder all of that risk.”

Crop insurance and federal subsidies tend to favor large producers like the corn farmers in the midwest. Through her research Schattman has found that many of these farmers would like to diversify their crops, or use more sustainable practices like no-till or cover cropping, but for now it’s not financially viable.

“I can’t imagine things continuing exactly as they are,” Schattman said of the food system as a whole. “We are trying to bring as much evidence and science-based material into the program as we can because a lot of stuff out there is pointing in a lot of different directions.”