Climate change taking toll on Mass. farms

'We've basically got New Jersey's weather now,' says Hadley farmer

RYAN VOILAND, owner of Red Fire Farm in Montague and Granby, says growing organic vegetables is hard enough, but doing it amidst climate change makes it nearly impossible.

In 2021, his crops suffered significant damage due to excessive rains. This past year the drought forced him to water his crops repeatedly, which yielded a decent harvest but required him to pay more for labor and fuel than he could get for his crops at market.

To make up the difference, Voiland recently borrowed $600,000, and raised another $120,000 on Go Fund Me just to make payroll and other operating expenses.

While crowdsourcing may be an unusual strategy among farmers, Voiland’s problems are anything but. Many farmers are facing the same challenges, struggling with losses related to climate change that are severe enough to threaten the viability of their businesses and, at least to some degree, the state’s food supply.

By the end of August, most of the state experienced severe to extreme drought, according to the US Drought Monitor. Connecticut and Rhode Island were in similar shape. Only the western part of the country and Texas had it worse, with large areas of those regions experiencing severe drought and some areas experiencing the highest level, what’s called “exceptional drought.”

According to Dan Smiarowski, the state director of the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, extreme drought automatically triggers a “disaster declaration” by the federal government, opening up a number of different emergency loan programs for farmers in those counties. The Farm Service Agency has received applications from a wide range of farmers around the state with production losses.

Losing farms is a problem for the state’s food supply. While people can still buy produce, meat, and eggs produced out of state at their local grocery store, there is a high demand for buying these products directly from local farmers. According to the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture’s website, Massachusetts farms have the highest proportion (21 percent) of direct sales at farm stands and stores in comparison to other states.

Voiland estimates that his 200-acre farm, which is one of the largest organic farms in Massachusetts, supplies the vegetable needs of 7,000 people. Red Fire Farm regularly sends trucks filled with vegetables into farmers markets as well as distribution sites in Cambridge, Somerville, Copley Square, and Jamaica Plain where customers pay for a “share” of his vegetable crop before the season begins.

Ben Clark, owner of Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield and president of the Massachusetts Fruit Growers Association, estimates that his organization’s members sustained 20-25 percent crop losses across the state.

Smiarowski says that livestock farmers have also been hard hit with rising costs of feed and diminished hay and silage due to the drought. Silage is chopped hay, corn, or other forage that is stored in an airtight silo, fermented, and fed out over the winter to livestock.

Not all farms suffered losses this year. Some crops, such as later-bearing apples and cranberries, were saved by late summer rains. According to Clark, the orchardist, crops like strawberries and peaches are particularly tasty during drought conditions, as sugar concentrates in the fruit.

The severity of the drought was quite variable even within the same county. Berkshire, Hampden, and Hampshire counties had drought conditions rising to severe but not extreme levels. “Some of the farmers I’ve talked to say they’ve had crop losses bad enough to threaten their operation, while others say it’s been their best year,” says Stephen Taranto, a climate specialist at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield.

Wally Cziakowski, a vegetable farmer in Hadley, says that a successful harvest these days boils down to luck and location. “It’s impossible to predict what we’re going to get in the upcoming season,” he says. “Do you plant in the field with lighter soil that drains well during hard rains? What if you get a drought that year?”

Wally Cziakowski of Plainville Farm. (Photo by Linda Enerson)

While precipitation has been unpredictable, Cziakowski sees a clear warming trend overall. “We’ve basically got New Jersey’s weather now,” he said.

Farmers can prepare for weather-related losses by investing in irrigation equipment, drainage ditches, or hoophouses (simpler, less expensive greenhouses). In Massachusetts, both the National Resources Conservation Service (another USDA agency) and the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture have grants to help farmers adapt to climate change by investing in such projects.

This summer, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $19.45 billion for additional NRCS funding, which will provide grants to help farmers employ these and other climate friendly practices, such as planting crops without tilling the soil. Many of these practices also help farmers adapt to climate change as they conserve or sequester resources such as water and carbon in the soil. NRCS has not made final decisions or state allocations for the IRA funding which begins next year and continues for several years.

But all these grants generally require matching funds, and farmers are often hesitant to make such capital investments if they already have heavy debt loads and/or low profit margins.

The unpredictability of climate change increases their risk. “If you don’t have a lot of money for capital investments, it’s hard to know what to invest in because you don’t know what extreme weather events to prepare for,” says Taranto.

Farmers that are smaller in scale, are organic, or who didn’t inherit land are most vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the economy and climate, Taranto says. Cziakowski, who did inherit farmland and farms conventionally, put it more bluntly. “They’re fucked,” he said.

Voiland, who did not inherit farmland, leases half of his land and owns the rest. He bought his land through the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, which makes property more affordable by having the state purchase the development rights. Even with that program, Voiland said he struggles to service the annual loan payments of $200,000 per year that are ticking upward due to rising interest rates.

Organic farmers are also vulnerable, Cziakowski says, because organic production methods require more labor for tasks such as weeding (which have been largely replaced by herbicides or chemical weed killers on conventional farms). Labor costs have been increasing steadily across the country over the past few years. In Massachusetts, minimum wages have been rising each year on a schedule established by the Legislature to keep up with the cost of living. In addition, farmers have had to compete with larger companies, offering higher starting salaries to attract a dwindling labor pool.

“I knew we were going to pay more for labor this year than we can really afford, but we had to do it. We needed the help,” says Voiland. Still, some positions went unfilled and Voiland and his wife picked up that slack, working 80 to 100 hours some weeks.

Most of the workers Voiland hires are immigrants. “The Latinos are why we’re still here. They’re excellent workers, but many can’t speak English, so unfortunately, they can’t move into management positions,” he said.

Voiland’s road ahead is uncertain. He is considering different options, such as focusing on growing fewer crops (he currently grows 50 different vegetables and herbs), selling some of his land, or filing for bankruptcy. “I’m in this because I want to grow the kind of food that isn’t always available,” he said. “But I have to look at what I can do to keep growing at all.”