Farming in a Changing Climate

One thing we maybe should have considered more when we decided to start to farm is dealing with our quickly and unpredictably changing climate. March this year was all over the place in terms of weather, way beyond usual lion/lamb analogies. We’ve had nights down in the teens, and a few days later a 75 degree scorcher. All with a broody hen sitting on eggs! Unfortunately these extremes are probably not going away in the next few years (or decades), and learning how to farm right now is  about trying to adapt to these changes and be resilient.

Our biggest challenge is our fruit trees. We have dreams of making our own hard cider, in an area that is much less temperate than it used to be, and much more sweltering-hot-all-summer-worryingly-mild-all-winter-then-random-extreme-freezes-in-spring. No amount of horticultural fleece was able to save our peach tree, and the emotional rollercoaster of seeing all the gorgeous pink blossoms in February followed by watching them get destroyed by the below freezing temperatures of March was a powerful lesson. The newest trees we are planting on a sheltered north facing slope, where (fingers crossed) the trees will have a cooler microclimate. This will mean they blossom later, making them less vulnerable to early spring freezes, and also it should provide some protection from the blazing hot summer sun. Each of them also has at it’s base a huge pile of wood chip mulch to hopefully give some resilience in case of another drought like last year’s. Henry is also experimenting with getting some root stock from trees developed in the south, and grafting them with scion wood from the French and British high-tannin cider varieties we want to grow. It will be a few years before we see how effective this is, but we’ll keep you posted!

More traditional garden planning is tricky too. Our spare bedroom is full of seedlings that we are deciding when to plant out, betting that the last frost is over, but not knowing for sure. Trying to put in place lots of different rainwater harvesting systems in case we have another giant drought as we did at the end of last summer. Looking at the sky every day for three months and hoping for rain which never comes, with the haze of wildfire smoke over everything, is a very sobering experience and one which sadly we probably haven’t seen the last of. We are so fortunate to have a creek and springs on our land, but anything we can do to take advantage of the rain that comes the rest of the year, whether it’s building swales, increasing the organic matter in the soil, aerating the ground to help more water soak in when it does rain, or collecting rain from our roofs to water our plants and animals, will help.

When we meet other farmers or orchardists we talk about what their plans are, how they’re dealing with some of the challenges we’re facing, to get ideas. We read everything we can find, from old library books to permaculture forums. There is no doubt that the climate and growing seasons are different now than they were five or ten or thirty years ago, but it doesn’t mean we give up, it just means we have to stay flexible, observe and adapt, and keep trying new things.

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