Ellery Pool and Molly Funk
Ellery Pool and Molly Funk, both Program Assistants at CISA. Photo: CISA

Blog | May 5, 2023

Grantee Climate Spotlight: Farmer Innovation with CISA

by Jessica Kurn and Cristina Sandolo

One of the ways we work to build a thriving family farm-centered system of agriculture is through our annual grant program, which funds farming and rural service organizations. We view these grantees across the country as critical on-the-ground partners in the movement to keep farmers on the land, producing good food for all.

In 2022 we distributed nearly $1.2 million in grant funding. One of our central funding priority for these grants was supporting organizations that facilitate farmer-led solutions to climate change. To highlight the exciting programs happening around the country, we’re rolling out a new Grantee Climate Spotlight series, which will explore how our grantees are making a difference in their community.

The first in our series looks at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, which  works with the local community to strengthen farms and build up the local food economy. CISA envisions a local food system where farms are viable, working conditions are fair and just for owners and workers, the environment is respected, and locally grown food is available for all.

We recently sat down with Development Director, Wendy Ferris, and Program Coordinator, Stephen Taranto, to hear more about CISA’s initiatives related to climate change and farmer innovation and resilience in the face of a changing environment. Below is a lightly-edited transcript from that conversation.

Jessica Kurn: How have you seen the climate changing in your area? And specifically, how are farmers impacted?

Stephen Taranto: One of our board members, who is a farmer, mentioned at a meeting the other day: “Now [it’s like] we’re farming in New Jersey.” And everybody was like, “yeah, it is, it is.” Broadly speaking, it’s really a different ecosystem at this point, and the plants and animals have to catch up because they don’t change as quickly as the climate is changing right now.

More specifically, it’s expressed in higher temperatures. New England is the region of North America that’s warming the fastest. We’re well above the 1.5 degree increase in average temperatures considered tolerable…it’s above 2 degrees here! So that increased temperature over the ocean and other water bodies means more humidity over the land, and that in turn means more precipitation. And not only are we getting more rainfall but we’re getting that rainfall in more compressed lapses of time. Generally speaking there has been predictable rainfall during the New England growing seasons and now you’ll have a deluge, and then you’ll have a drought, and then you’ll have a deluge, and then you’ll have a drought.

Most farms here are not prepared for extremes. Specifically they’re not prepared for droughts, because historically there has not been excessive drought in our region and many farms have not had to invest in irrigation, which is an expensive and labor intensive thing for any scale farm. So we have a lot of farmers unprepared because they don’t have resources for irrigation and a technical assistance network that is also unprepared to support these farmers. The NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service], one of the Federal government’s most important arms for agricultural technical assistance, only has one hydrological engineer for the State of Massachusetts and Puerto Rico – and there is a lot of water in both of those places!

Another big way farmers are experiencing climate change is the heat. Certain plants don’t really pollinate above a certain temperature. So you’re removing days of potential pollination out of the total number of days of potential pollination. You also have crops that can’t cool down enough, and they come in off the field really warm. Refrigeration and cooling systems on farms aren’t always prepared for this and crops can be damaged and lost if cooling isn’t adequate.

We have one food business [we work with] and 70% of what they buy is cabbage. They found over time that they’re getting their cabbage a couple of degrees warmer than it used to be and that means that it has to be cooled or it can be lost from rot and fungi that thrives in warm, wet environments.

Invasive species, in particular weeds, are another huge problem. This is caused both by the warmer temperatures allowing the range of these plants to expand, but also the longer warm season allows the plants to live longer in the fall and get started faster in the spring. Weed management is the reason why farmers till the soil, because they need to break up all that stuff before planting and that goes against the goal of reducing how much soil is tilled.

Cristina Sandolo: It would be great to hear a little bit about your programs, specifically CISA’s Climate Program. Can you tell us about how you work with farmers and some of the technical assistance that you provide in the face of these challenges?

Stephen Taranto: About half of what the program does is provide direct technical assistance to farmers. So, because of the way we have worked as an organization, we get a lot of farms that contact us rather than going somewhere else. They might not know that they can go to the FSA [Farm Service Agency] or the NRCS. If I can provide direct technical assistance to the farm because of my skillset, I will do that. Otherwise we can look into using grant resources to help pay for an external consultant to provide that.

“The changes are happening too fast for farmers and those that support them to really galvanize the food system in a way that’s going to allow it to keep being as productive as it is.”

We also have a more formal program, our Adaptation Grants, and these are open all year round. Farmers can get up to $3,000 for technical assistance related to adapting their farm or food business to climate change. For example, they may need a hydrologist to come in and help them with some drainage design or they need a mentor to help them reduce tillage. We had some farmers come to us for support to go to a compost school in Maine, so they could develop a new enterprise on their farm converting waste from their chickens.

We also have this really great and innovative program called the Emergency Farm Fund. This is a fund that CISA has grown over the years since Hurricane Irene. It’s a zero interest loan that farmers who have been impacted by a weather event can receive. We have two tiers: A $5,000 tier that’s open year round, and these are for one-off events like microburst that causes a greenhouse to explode. Then there’s the second tier, which is for widespread events. This is up to $20,000, and also interest-free. These loans are for more widespread events like the terrible rains in 2021, when many farmers lost crops because of both the rainfall and the humidity saturating soil, and a lot of disease spread.

We also organize a lot of webinars and workshops, and each year we have a different climate-related theme. Last year it was water management, and this year it’s farmer adaptation innovations.

One farm that we’ve been working with for the last six months, Sawyer Farm, has an adaptation grant and has use it to develop this perennial Dutch White Clover cropping system that involves planting row crops into a perennial cover crop, which is very unusual. Most farmers are tarping and putting plastic down and tilling, or they’re using herbicide. He [farmer Lincoln Fishman] has come up with this system where he’s planting and establishing a bed of Dutch White Clover in the fall and in the spring he pops in seeds.

This is where our adaptation grant came into play because we supported a machinist to repurpose a transplant shoe that would allow him to slice into that perennial Dutch White Clover and plant seedlings or seeds right into that slit and then quickly close it back up so weeds don’t have a chance to get established.

Farmer Lincoln Fishman's innovative design

Farmer Lincoln Fishman’s innovative design. “I think that shoe was a solid, qualified success.”

Jessica Kurn: I love that! Are you informing the community of these developments? How are you raising awareness about what farmers are doing in response to climate change?

Wendy Ferris: We have a weekly column in our regional newspaper where we highlight stories of local farms. We had a whole series of them in the fall of last year about how some of these farms are adapting to climate change and dealing with the impacts on the ground. And increasingly it’s just part of everything that we do, and all the stories that we’re telling. Farmers need to get more and more creative under stress.

“Farmers are used to being challenged, but they’re also used to the challenges being somewhat predictable…in the context of how stressful farming is and always has been, it makes it so daunting to think about people wanting to stay in that profession.”

Jessica Kurn: So let’s scale back to the very big picture: What are your biggest concerns about climate change and the future of agriculture?

Stephen Taranto: I would say that the changes are happening too fast for farmers and those that support them to really galvanize the food system in a way that’s going to allow it to keep being as productive as it is. For example, farmers are lamenting that we don’t have enough trials of climate change-adapted varieties being tested on farms. It’s another scarcity that we have here. We need to be finding varieties of butternut squash, for example, a huge crop in our area, that are adapted to more humid conditions so they’re more resistant to the pathogens that come with that humidity.

So that’s where you have a lag that can be really discouraging to a farmer. And, as you all know, the demographics of farmers are not in our favor. It’s easy for a farmer to give up and say, “well, I’ve been in this for 30 years. I’ve done my time.”

Wendy Ferris: We had a board member at an event a few months ago who said the challenges just keep changing. Farmers are used to being challenged, but they’re also used to the challenges being somewhat predictable. And I think when you put that in the context of how stressful farming is and always has been, it makes it so daunting to think about people wanting to stay in that profession. It’s physically demanding and adding in that sense of unpredictability is really worrisome.

And that’s one of my favorite things about what CISA does: We have all of these different programs and all kinds of resources. But I think first and foremost, it’s somebody to call, it’s the first call, and no matter what the question is, even if it’s way out of our area of expertise, we’re going to find an answer for them.

Cristina Sandolo: Sounds like you’ve got trust among farmers. What’s the impact of your organization having been around and filling that role?

Wendy Ferris: We’ve been grappling for stories that succinctly summarize CISA’s impact and it’s been kind of impossible because what we’ve seen is that it’s these interactions of varying depths and degrees over time that are really the piece that has added up into incredible impacts. Farmers are saying, “we wouldn’t be here without CISA,” or “It’s because of a training 15 years ago and a small grant five years ago that I’m still around.” And it’s that constant  drumbeat that we provide to the community: “these farmers are important, and they’re providing an essential service to our community, so support them.”

Stephen Taranto: A piece of that that is particular to Massachusetts, and maybe some other states, is that agriculture is such a big part of the overall economy in Massachusetts and, for example technical assistance services are underfunded. So organizations like CISA are especially important because there is just not the support that’s needed for a thriving local food system.

Cristina Sandolo: I would love to hear about what you are thinking for the future. Is there something that you’re excited about, or that’s giving you hope for the future? Does CISA have specific goals that you’re trying to reach over the next few years?

Wendy Ferris: We are in the middle of a campaign right now to increase our capacity and adapting to climate change is a central component of that. Right now Stephen is the only one in our climate department. I think everyone will have climate as part of their job description soon. You know, it’s not just something that we are doing as a standalone piece; it will be woven into all of the work that we’re doing.

Stephen Taranto: Yeah, I would echo that. I guess the approach that we’ve taken has really been to look for the ways climate is affecting everything that we do. And so having at least one person that’s beating that drum has allowed it to permeate a lot of the organization’s thinking about the ways it helps people.

In terms of the bigger picture: It’s been shown over and over again that the best way to help farmers adapt is through direct interaction from farmer to farmer. CISA has not provided this kind of technical assistance in the past – our assistance has been more focused on business development, marketing, consumer education, and access to food. So we’re entering into more technical assistance around production and farm operations because that’s what you hear is such a big need when you talk to farmers.

I would also add that CISA is working with partner organizations across state boundaries, a loose working group related to climate. These changes don’t know anything about borders. So we also think it’s really important to be connected with other organizations, because we could get another Hurricane Irene in a two-week period, and we really do need to be aware of who’s doing what and where, so that when we get one of those weather events, we know what each other’s doing and how to help.

Cristina Sandolo: Is there a name for that group?

Stephen Taranto: We call ourselves: Northeast Climate Adaptation Professionals. There’s about 15 of us from different organizations and we meet once a month and swap stories. We’ve also collaborated on some events. It’s folks from various organizations like: NOFA VT, NOFA MA, The Carrot Project, Farm Viability Alliance, Glynwood Farm, Cooperative Extension of MA and also NY, American Farmland Trust, Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, and Cheshire County Conservation District. It’s kind of like a climate professionals support group.

Jessica Kurn: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. We’re endlessly inspired by the work you do!

Learn more about CISA and their work to strengthens farms and engage the community in building the local food economy.

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