Our farmers are a key part of CT’s fight to combat climate change!
In a few short months, farmers across the state will start to sow seedlings into the ground that supply CT communities with local food. The erratic weather conditions of the last growing season continue to haunt farmers who worry that climate change will severely affect the economic viability of their farms.
In late February, I spoke to Jamie Jones from Jones Family Farm in Shelton, CT about the impacts climate change has on his family’s farm operation and policy solutions needed to help farmers adapt. Jones is a sixth-generation farmer who returned to the farm after graduating from Cornell University in 1998 to start a vineyard. The farm is situated on 400 working acres that cultivate a diversified operation, where Jones and his family grow Christmas trees, wine grapes, strawberries, blueberries, pumpkins, gourds, and squash.
Our conversation quickly turned to how climate change is creating unpredictable weather conditions from extreme rainfalls to drastic changes in temperature, both of which have a considerable impact on his ability to grow and harvest grapes.
Last year, when temperatures seemed to be on the rise in CT, Jones invested in grape varietals that grow in warmer climates. Grapevines can take four to five years to mature before you can harvest grapes for wine production. In 2016, CT farmers faced what has become to be known as the “Valentine’s Day Massacre” where the temperature dropped so low they killed the infant vines of Jone’s new grapes. Jones planted this new varietal in anticipation that the climate would sustain warmer weather conditions. However, the sudden fluctuation in weather killed Jones’s plans. As a result, Jones resorted to growing heartier varieties bred to be grown in colder climates. The unpredictability in weather challenges a farm’s viability
Jones has introduced several new practices to help his farm withstand the changes in weather patterns. These practices include: making sure that fields have proper drainage, sculpting the landscape, and investing in irrigation systems to support drought conditions. His family has also been looking into different genetics of plants to combat various diseases that have been linked to climate change and can handle dramatic changes in the weather.
These investments in the research, technical assistance, and infrastructure needed to implement climate-smart agriculture practices can be costly. Jones noted that Land Grant Universities like the University of Connecticut’s Cooperative Extension and state-led research centers like the CT Agricultural Experiment Station continue to face drastic budget cuts due to state fiscal deficits. Additional research is needed on different types of genetics that could survive severe and drastic weather patterns that are linked to climate change. If land grant universities are not doing research then the private sector does research which oftentimes can be biased.
The United States Department of Agriculture –Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) programs are limited because in Connecticut they are not paying farmers to continuously implement these practices but they will pay for you to adopt the practice.
The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) can be limiting for farmers in the Northeast. Jones does not get paid the true cost of what it takes to implement these practices, especially since the pay structure set up by USDA-NRCS to reimburse farmers who implement these practices is based on a percentage of the average costs rather than actual costs. The costs in the payment schedule look at prior year costs and not current costs. In this time of high inflation and supply chain interruptions, it is hurting farmers trying to implement conservation on their farms. It was clear that there is a need for state policymakers and officials to come up with creative solutions that will ensure farmers have the financial support they need to continuously implement these practices.
My conversation with Jones reminded me why now is the time for Connecticut to pass legislation that will support farmers in further implementing climate-smart agricultural practices. The CT State Legislature has an opportunity this session to pass SB 243- An Act Concerning Climate-Smart Agricultural Practices. If passed and the legislature directs funding towards this program, it would do the following:
- Change the name of the Farmland Restoration Grant Program to the Farmland Restoration and Climate Resiliency Grant Program
- Update the program to both pay and reimburse farmers who implement Climate-Smart Agricultural and Forestry Practices as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service
- Expand the program to pay service providers to provide technical assistance, distribute grant funds to producers, establish equipment sharing programs, and coordinate various programs that will increase the number of farmers who are implementing climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resource Conservation Services
- Remove the cap on how much funding the CT Department of Agriculture Commissioner can reimburse farmers who implement farmland restoration and climate resiliency practices
Lastly, my conversation with Jones gave me hope that our agricultural sector and farmland can be a key part of the state’s efforts to fight climate change. It is clear that most farmers in the state are ready to implement climate-smart agricultural practices but need the capital and support to do so.