Despite challenges with changing weather, farmers get creative with finding new ways to work
By Chloe Bennett
The Adirondack region has a short growing season and a reputation for mountainous terrain, not cropland. But the modest collection of farms, mainly concentrated in Essex County, provides some job opportunities for newcomers and fresh food for locals.
Over the past 15 years, a new wave of young farmers settled in the North Country and more community supported agriculture (CSA) programs have followed, prompting a hopeful turn for the group. Now with years of Adirondack growing seasons under their belts, the farmers are finding solutions for problems old and new.
An increase in severe weather from human-caused climate change is adding more risks to the already difficult endeavor. The last decade saw some of the warmest years on record, increasing crop insurance losses in the U.S., according to a 2021 study from Stanford University. Although severe weather is far from new to farmers, greenhouse gas emissions are warming the world faster than it should.
But help from state and federal policies, along with community support, can ease strains. In and outside the Adirondacks, several programs present solutions for local farms.
The federal farm bill, for example, renegotiated by Congress every five years, is set to renew with millions in conservation dollars for climate change mitigation. The 2018 bill expired on Sept. 30 and is not expected to renew until September 2024 as lawmakers have not settled on the package’s details.
Some Republicans on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry are pushing to loosen restrictions on climate-focused funds from the Inflation Reduction Act, while Democrats, including the committee’s chair, are working to keep the dollars in conservation programs.
The vast piece of legislation touches nearly every part of the U.S. food system and is projected to total $1.5 trillion, significantly more than years past. A large portion of the funds are for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, though much of the bill is distributed to the nation’s agriculture industry. The last bill delivered $428.3 billion, a number just over farming debt piled up nationwide that year.
Protecting conservation dollars to address climate change statewide is a priority of the New York State Farm Bureau (NYFB), a lobbying organization in Albany.
Climate change models show precipitation in the Northeast will increase as warming air holds more water. A recent study from Dartmouth College, published in the journal Climatic Change, projects that the region could see a 52% increase in precipitation.
In Keene Valley, a small fruit and vegetable farmer felt a financial increase during 2020, when more buyers were choosing farm food over visits to the grocery store. Wild Work Farm’s Lissa Goldstein welcomed the increased sales after major flooding in 2019 wiped out her plants. In many ways, she said, 2023 has been more challenging for her 3-acre operation.
“We had a late freeze, and then it’s been so wet, we’ve had so much disease, so all yields, pretty much across the board, have been down,” said Goldstein, who started the farm in 2017. “Although we haven’t had flooding, we’ve been kind of constantly under the threat of flooding, basically since June.”
Tucked into the federal farm bill are several programs to help farmers adapt to climate change adversities. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP) can help guide farmers through more sustainable land management. Cost-share programs can cover some expenses of transitioning into organic farming, increasing soil health. Money to cover expensive projects like installing greenhouses is a benefit Dillon Klepetar, owner of Echo Farm in the town of Essex, utilized.
The EQUIP program provided about 70% of funds for a high tunnel installed on the land, which functions similarly to a traditional greenhouse. About $13,000 from the Rural Energy for America program, titled under the bill’s rural development section, supported solar panels affixed to the farm’s barns. Many farms in Essex County have installed high tunnels with the help of the EQUIP program, he said.
A sheep dairy farm owned by Shannon and Tyler Eaton in Jay was improved with similar funding, supporting their goals of sustainable stewardship. The couple breeds around 48 sheep a season at Blue Pepper Farm and mainly sell yogurt. Using grants, Tyler Eaton said a fence was implemented strategically for rotational grazing, along with water infrastructure to keep the animals from the land’s streams.
Agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service can distribute some of the funds from the farm bill through local offices.
“Getting some of that support from these programs helps us make it easier to manage things the right way in a long-term responsibility to the land and the community,” he said.
As Congress negotiates the country’s food system for the next five years, farms in the North Country are working to strengthen their own.
Beyond employing climate-smart practices like cover cropping and rotational grazing, many farms are caring for their surrounding wilderness and wildlife by planting pollinator habitats or restoring forests and waterbodies around farms. Carly Summers, agriculture issue leader for Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension in Essex County, said the park’s farming scene is a unique one because of its relationship to the surrounding environment and local population.
Just under 30% of farmers who responded to a conservation survey from the extension said they manage a pollinator habitat. Most of them also compost their waste to use on soil, a practice that reduces methane emissions and sequesters carbon dioxide.
Many farmers moved here specifically for their attraction to the park’s wilderness, Summers said.
Blue Pepper Farm started in 2012 with motivations to protect the land’s soil and water, Eaton said. He’s found like-minded people in the surrounding agricultural community.
“Not that farms prior to us weren’t mindful of ecology and water and soil systems, but some of these younger farms, it was part of their specific mission and their business plan to farm that way,” he said. He’s also noticed an increase in local resources as more small farms are established in the area.
At Wild Work Farm, Goldstein’s team avoids synthetic fertilizers or pesticides that can contain fossil fuels and harm the natural environment.
One farmer expresses optimism about Adirondack farming, despite weather challenges in recent years. Asgaard Farm & Dairy in Ausable Forks has been in production for 20 years, selling cheese, meat and eggs. David Brunner, who runs it with wife Rhonda Butler, said seeing small-scale agriculture expand, particularly in Essex County, has been gratifying.
This year, Asgaard scaled back, taking an indefinite break from the full operation. Brunner and Butler are 68 and planning succession.
“We’ve been able to make a lot of progress, not only in the production, seeing that in the production by small farms, but the distribution and sales and acceptance of these products to everyone who lives here, regardless of income level,” he said.
Through CSA programs and local retailers, farms supply food to residents and visitors outside of the immediate market. Nonprofit ADKAction began a food security project in 2021 to give CSA memberships at no cost to families in the park. The organization pays upfront costs to North Country growers including Tangleroot Farm, Juniper Hill Farm and North Point Community Farm. In 2023, 157 families are enrolled, according to Sawyer Bailey, executive director.
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This article first appeared in a recent issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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Although rural farming in the U.S. has declined for decades due to a combination of economic growth for large-scale agriculture and rural depopulation, Essex County’s farm acreage has remained relatively stable since the late 1990s, according to the extension.
The health of the Adirondack farming community doesn’t just rest on stewards’ shoulders, but on the community at large, Klepetar said, which requires consumers to prioritize local products to build food security for the future. “Now, not when we have to,” he said. “By that point, it will be much too late.”
Data from the last federal agriculture census showed the community is ahead of the curve, as the county had the second-highest sales directly to individuals, per the farms’ income, across the state. On-site stores and CSA programs likely contributed to the statistic.
“I don’t expect that local farms will solve all the problems of world food hunger, but it certainly has an important and vital contribution to make in a rural community like ours,” Asgaard’s Brunner said.