Farm-Ecology: How One Vermont Farm Is Addressing Climate Change & Pollinator Loss
By: Nancy Hayden
My husband, John, reminds me every so often that in a world of seven billion people it is a privilege to own land. This is a good thing to contemplate as I stack brush and run it through the wood chipper. After a long winter, I’m already feeling the ache in my back and shoulders from only a few hours of work. Yet it feels good to use this aging body, and I know it’s good for me. It is a privilege to grow older, too.
It was 22 years ago when we launched our farm, The Farm Between, a diversified organic fruit farm, fruit nursery, and pollinator sanctuary. Nestled in the Lamoille River Valley between Cambridge and Jeffersonville, and settled in the early 1800s, it is one of the oldest homesteads in the area. Like many old Vermont farms, it came with a large farmhouse and many outbuildings including a gigantic post-and-beam barn, all of which were beautiful but in need of repair. The land needed even more work. The past owners had kept it hayed over the years, which had left the soils depleted. There was also a fair amount of erosion, no riparian zone buffer near the stream, and little diversity of plant species. We looked forward to mending this farm and land, keeping in mind our interest in blending agriculture and ecology.
We started out as many young organic farmers do: raising livestock, building the soils, growing vegetables. We had our own farm market, sold at farmers’ markets, and started a CSA. Roughly 12 years ago though, we re-evaluated our farming endeavors and decided to make a serious investment in different kinds of organic fruit. There were several reasons for this. The increasing numbers of veggie and livestock farmers in Vermont meant a real increase in competition, and we noticed a gap in the area of local, organic fruits. These are high-value crops, and with the exception of strawberries, they literally take years to bear fruit, which is why many new farmers don’t start out in fruit. So we overlapped our fruit-planting expansion while we still had our veggie CSA. We also realized that propagating our own plants would be cost effective and that selling the extras was a way to promote local food sovereignty.
Another big reason for the switch to fruit and a fruit nursery was that during our final years on the farm, with the mortgage paid off and the kids gone, we wanted something manageable with just the two of us and a few occasional workers. We didn’t want to get bigger and spend more time on the administrative parts of farming instead of on the hands-on aspects. We believe small is beautiful, and with high-value fruit crops and value-added fruit products (see sidebar), we can remain small while providing a living for ourselves.
One of the main things we’ve learned over the years is that organic farming is as much about healing and nurturing people as it is about healing and nurturing the soils and the land. Ecologically educated and trained, we’ve always seen the farm (including the people) as its own ecosystem where everything is connected. It’s also connected to the global ecosystem, and with all the environmental problems today, even an ailing society, we’ve asked ourselves what we can do on our patch of earth to improve things, while still making a living.
For example, climate change is a real concern for farmers these days. Lamoille Valley rainfall data from NOAA shows a steadily increasing trend from the 100-year average. We’re getting seven to nine inches of rain per year more than we used to. This means increased storm runoff, erosion, and flooding. The extra rainfall makes it even more important to maintain riparian buffer zones on the edges of streams and rivers, something many farmers are reluctant to do because it takes land out of production.
One of the things we’ve been doing is tree coppicing—cutting certain types of trees (for example., willows and silver maples) and allowing the shoots to grow out from the stumps. This allows for regular harvesting of biomaterials that we use for mulch, while maintaining the continual growth of the trees. Living trees help stabilize the stream and its banks during flooding. In addition, willows, box elder, and silver maples are an excellent early season pollen source for our pollinators. We’ve also planted fruiting shrubs, such as elderberries and aronia that can withstand flooding and wet soils in flood prone fields, and dozens of trees (locust, black walnut, and maples) to sequester carbon, provide early pollination services, and provide future lumber.
One way to deal with weather extremes and oscillations that are exacerbated by climate change has been to plant a variety of fruit crops, so if one doesn’t do well in a given year due to a late frost or winter damage, another one will. We’ve also been growing fruit in unheated hoop houses, such as fall raspberries and, this year, ever-bearing strawberries. We’ve even been experimenting with apples in hoop houses. This protects them from late frosts, hail, and wet leaves, which promote disease.
The demise of honeybees and many of our native pollinators is another real concern for farmers. If there’s one thing we know as fruit growers, it’s that fruit plants need healthy pollinator populations to bear healthy fruit, and not just honeybees because they don’t pollinate very efficiently when the weather is cool or rainy, as it often is in spring. Native bees are more efficient pollinators because they work in most weather, and bumblebees even vibrate the flowers to get them to shed more pollen. Pollinators need flowers, not just in the spring when most fruit bushes and trees are in flower, but all season long. Part of healing the land for us has been to increase the floral resources for the bees throughout the entire season and to increase bee nesting and overwintering habitat.
Farming and gardening promote the healing of people too, not just through the eating of healthy, fresh, fruits, but by offering physical exercise and connection with nature. That’s why part of our mission over the years has also been to bring people, especially children and students, onto the farm to work and learn about growing food. John has developed long-term relationships with local schools, summer programs, and different colleges to make this happen. Giving people a chance to get onto a working farm is one of the main reasons we had for opening our fruit and pollinator nursery business. We want to share the beauty of this place as well as the farm and garden experience with more people.
In our fast-paced, technological world, getting back in touch with the land, physical outdoor activities, and healthy local food are ways to rejuvenate ourselves and our communities. With the privilege of owning land and trying to make a living from it also comes a responsibility to strive to make things better. In the big scheme of things, what we’re doing may not have a huge impact, but to ourselves and our visitors, it does.
Photo by Carol Sullivan