Agricultural producer adapting to weather fluctuations with a revolutionary reduced tillage approach
WORTHINGTON – “Farming is going to have to be different,” says Lincoln Fishman of Sawyer Farm in Worthington, given the climate crisis. “And I’m just not interested in old-fashioned farming.”
Well-read and well-spoken, Fishman has an acute ability to look beyond his own farm to see the trajectory of commercial agriculture as a whole and consider his role in change. He sees climate change as a serious threat and is not shy about adapting drastically and helping other farmers do the same.
At Sawyer Farm, Fishman farms 25 acres of sloping fields in the hills alongside his partner, Hillary Costa, and a handful of colleagues. “About seven acres are devoted to vegetables and cover crops,” he says, “focusing on crops that can be stored and sold year-round — cabbage, carrots, onions, that sort of thing.”
Much of their produce is sold from an on-site farm shop at the end of Sawyer Road, which also carries food from other local farms and handpicked staple foods sourced in the most ethical way possible. They also wholesale to other markets, distributors and restaurants.
Farmers have a direct view of changing weather patterns in New England, and their observations often humanize the scientific data showing how climate change is fueling these trends.
“I’ve been a farmer here for 12 years and 15 in total, and I would say the last five have been dramatic,” Fishman says. “For us, it all depends on the intensity and frequency of rainfall, and the variation is staggering. Last July we had 16 inches of rain; this July we got a thumbs up. We can’t predict anything. »
How this rain falls is also important, especially since the fields at Sawyer Farm are on a slope. “We see more intense rains falling over shorter periods, which can cause all kinds of soil erosion,” he explains. “My children won’t be able to farm here unless I’m very careful to prevent that.”
Even when a farm identifies its vulnerabilities, as Sawyer Farm has done with water management and soil protection, the specific impacts that farms face change as climate change progresses. This forces farmers to adapt and re-adapt to stay ahead.
“Five years ago, we thought we could count on crazy rains during the late summer hurricane season,” says Fishman. This threatened to wash away valuable topsoil. One way to avoid this is to plant a cover crop whose roots hold the soil in place, which they typically did in the fall after the cash crops were harvested.
“To adapt, we started planting a cover crop of clover under everything in July,” he says. “During the hurricane season, it formed a full carpet and we reduced our soil erosion in the fall to near zero.”
This solved one problem, but like a weather-fueled mole game, more popped up.
“Then we started getting intense spring rains around the time we normally worked, when the ground was soft and washed away easily,” he says.
Fishman and Costa realized they needed year-round ground cover, and using a live cover crop of clover remained the most feasible method. But keeping that clover alive year after year meant not tilling the ground.
Tillage performs many functions in modern agriculture, from weed control to converting cover crops to preparing beds for planting. However, you can also achieve these goals without tilling, and farmers are increasingly turning to reduced or no-till methods. This can make the soil more resistant to several climate impacts, aerating it and improving its ability to hold water, and possibly sequestering more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, although the science is complex.
There are many ways to do low-till farming, but most on a larger scale rely on chemicals to kill weeds. Fishman’s goal was to grow organically and encourage his crops to co-exist with a chosen “weed”: clover.
It may sound simple, but Fishman’s inability to find other farms using this technique signaled its difficulty. From the time of planting to the tools they would use, a lot of things would have to change. Most notably, they would no longer need their beloved team of draft horses, whose main job was to plow. With no blueprints to follow, they drew their own.
Sawyer Farm is now three years into its experience of planting vegetables in clover fields. To begin the process, the first seedlings are planted in bare soil. Once the crops are established, clover is sown underneath in July.
“At the end of August, when we harvest, I walk through a well-established field of clover,” says Fishman. “That clover then overwinters, and for the next few years we continue to plant in the established clover.”
Each season brings new challenges. The main task is to make sure the clover outweighs the weeds but not their crops, a balance they are still fine-tuning. Eventually the weeds creep in, forcing them to plow and start the cycle all over again. But if it happens every four years as Fishman predicts, they’ve still quadrupled the tillage.
This way of cultivating that they pilot has not been proven. Will the soil be healthier? Will it grow as much food? Will it be financially viable enough for other farmers to follow its example? Fishman isn’t sure. But he collects data and offers his farm as a laboratory.
“We just received a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) Partnership Grant that will allow me to work with another farmer and a Ph.D. student at UMass and American Farmland Trust to study all of this,” he explains. I think farmer-led research is the best way to innovate in agriculture, because that’s what’s most compelling to other farmers.
Thinking big comes naturally to Fishman, which focuses on ideas that can be scaled up or replicated by other farmers. In his view, three obstacles further impede this type of innovation.
The first is the lack of research on alternative farming methods. “We really don’t know how to do it right now if we want to feed people in a sustainable way,” he says. “There just aren’t many examples.”
Then there is the lack of connectivity between farmers to share existing information.
“I don’t know how it is in other areas,” says Fishman, “but it doesn’t have to be so difficult. When I try to research a new idea or a new piece of equipment, that knowledge is scattered around the brains of a hundred people, and they don’t talk to each other.
Farmers are busy and find it difficult to maintain knowledge sharing networks themselves, although some do. Farm support organizations such as Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), Massachusetts Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA/Mass), and UMass Extension all facilitate this to some extent.
Yet on the whole, according to Fishman, the better-funded institutions that help farmers, the universities that grant land, and the state and federal departments of agriculture, don’t seem to prioritize the exchange of information between farmers. UMass Extension’s budget and staff in particular have been drastically reduced over several decades, diminishing their ability to do so.
This points directly to the third obstacle Fishman sees: a lack of public funding for agricultural innovation and climate adaptation, which he and many others believe is a public good.
“With the exception of the SARE grant, I don’t get paid for the experiments I do,” he says, “and I could have gotten a lot more out of those areas if I wasn’t experimenting.”
Grant programs exist to compensate farmers for conserving resources and strengthening the local food supply, and Sawyer Farm has taken advantage of them. From the state, they used an agricultural viability grant from the Department of Agriculture to help build their farm shop and food security infrastructure grants to build more cold storage and purchase tractor equipment. At the federal level, they received funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for things like invasive plant removal and manure management.
But while these programs help farmers protect the environment while keeping their operations in the dark, they represent a fraction of total government spending on agriculture, most of which supports the continued cultivation of staple crops. . Very little is devoted to innovation.
The Massachusetts Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program was a step towards funding farmers to find solutions. Prompted by supply shortages at the start of COVID-19, it put resources into the hands of farmers and small business owners to fill the supply chain gaps they encountered daily while trying to connect. local consumers to their food. This funding was short-lived, however, and despite its success, state interest in the investment waned.
Whether it’s food security or sustainability, “paying out of pocket to innovate doesn’t consider the broader social benefits it provides,” says Fishman. “What I’m doing is absolutely the wrong way to do business. I just think it’s the right way to farm.
“There needs to be more financial incentives to expand knowledge of what agriculture should look like,” he argues. “That would be using public funds for the benefit of the public.”
As for his own experience, it’s no exaggeration to say that Fishman bet the farm on it.
“If it fails, I don’t know what I will do,” he said. “Nothing would convince me to start plowing every year. It would feel like stepping back. I prefer to help other farmers get ahead, wherever they are.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). As the frontline supporter of food and local farms in Western Massachusetts, CISA helps farmers get the help and funding they need to thrive, even in the face of challenges like change. climatic. Learn more at buylocalfood.org
Climate Change at Home is sponsored by Whalen Insurance in Northampton.