Ideas

How New England could become Farmville again

In a new vision for the region, climate change gives local agriculture a big boost

James K. Hindle for The Boston Globe

NEEDHAM—As the temperature inches toward freezing, farmers are getting ready to yank carrots, beets, and parsnips out of the tough, cold ground. The end of the growing season is approaching, and with forecasts predicting a 19-degree Tuesday night, Dave Volante, who has been running this century-old family farm with his siblings for the past three years, is thinking about the vegetables that will likely get “burned” before morning. “We may lose broccoli tonight, we may lose cauliflower, but things like kale can take it,” he says.

Farming in New England was never easy, but Volante, who is 33, knows that in the coming decades it will be difficult in a whole new way. With the effects of climate change setting in, extreme weather has become more common, and the timing of the seasons has become unpredictable. It’s increasingly unclear when to plant or when to expect a harvest; if spring starts early but then temperatures suddenly drop, a crop can be ruined overnight, mere days after it went into the ground. “We’re entirely controlled by weather,” Volante says. “So obviously all this stuff has a huge effect on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

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Yet along with all the challenges that lie ahead, farmers in New England are also poised to see a surprising amount of new opportunity. With longer growing seasons caused by rising temperatures, more consumer enthusiasm for locally grown food, and drought and weather instability in regions where agriculture has historically been most productive, there’s good reason to think that farming in New England—a central part of the economy here until the Industrial Revolution—could be in for a serious comeback.

“What climate change is doing is making farming in New England not just more economically attractive, but also more necessary,” said Thomas Kelly, the founding director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s shifting the outlook on the future of agriculture and food in the region.”

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As New Englanders gird for more severe storms, flooding, and erosion, and threats to familiar animal species, the happy agricultural upside of climate change may be a bit of a hard sell. And yet, adapting successfully will mean being clear-eyed about all the ways it will transform our landscape—not just what’s at risk, but also how it could position regions like New England to be more, not less, productive.

That’s the implicit argument behind an emerging vision of food production in New England laid out by environmental specialists who believe that rising temperatures could open agricultural doors for the region that have been closed for generations. It is an ambitious and idealistic dream, but one predicated on an all-too-plausible scenario: a threat of change so great that it once again makes sense for New Englanders to start farming for ourselves.

Also, peaches. It’s possible there will be peaches.

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New England used to be covered with farms. From the Colonial era until the mid-19th century, most people in the region fed themselves by growing their own food. Families worked the land for corn, beans, rye, and potatoes, and kept sheep, pigs, chickens, and cattle. Farms ringed villages and ran up hillsides; pantries were stocked with locally caught salted cod and maple sugar. Until the 1880s, when the amount of farmland in the region peaked at around 16 million acres, ancient forests were unsentimentally and aggressively cleared to make room for crops and livestock.

The seeds of decline for New England agriculture were sown in the Midwest, where vast stretches of fertile, nitrogen-rich land made it possible to farm on an unprecedented scale, and where access to railroads and waterways—including the Erie Canal—allowed ambitious commercial farmers to transport their crops across long distances. As the price of shipping food fell and factory jobs lured the sons and daughters of farmers away into cities, small New England farms closed down, and trees started growing back where they had once stood. “Agriculture in New England ran into this economic juggernaut,” said Anthony Penna, an environmental historian at Northeastern University. “It drove New England farmers into bankruptcy and foreclosure.”

Today, New England is 80 percent covered with forest, much of it on top of what used to be farmland. And while agriculture in the region never completely died out, it became a niche industry. Most of the food that’s been grown here since World War II has taken the form of dairy products, or specialty crops like maple syrup, heirloom apples, cranberries, and wild blueberries. By current estimates, fully 90 percent of the food consumed here comes from somewhere else, and most of it is produced on massive factory farms.

As the environmental costs of shipping food thousands of miles from where it’s harvested become more broadly recognized, there’s been some pushback against the status quo. A small but growing market for locally sourced food has emerged, driven by interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the superior quality of crops raised on small-scale farms. “The secondary effect of climate change is that people are more aware of where things are coming from,” said Volante. “They’re cognizant that it does make a difference to the world.”

Climate change could also alter the equation by upending the economics of agriculture at a national and global level. With potentially higher fuel costs and America’s breadbaskets hit by climate-related disruptions, imported food could become much more expensive. At the same time, New England’s own historically cold winters are gradually getting shorter and more moderate. According to John Reilly, a codirector at the Center for Environmental Policy Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the average growing season in New England is now two to three weeks longer than it was just 30 years ago. These changes make it possible to imagine a future in which New England becomes more agriculturally self-sufficient.

To be blunt, experts say that the New England food economy stands to benefit from the damage that global warming threatens to do to other parts of the country—especially because climate models don’t predict that the Northeast, unlike other regions, will see any significant decrease in annual rainfall. Drought in California is already causing crop failure there, while the vast scale of the farms in the Midwest makes it difficult for growers to be flexible and reactive enough to keep up with unpredictable weather patterns. David Wolfe, a professor at Cornell University who studies agriculture and climate change, said it’s likely that supermarket buyers—the folks who order the food that we see on shelves—will be glad to have local options at a time when, say, the tomato harvest in California can’t be relied on to deliver. “They might be thinking, ‘Well, we can’t count on those guys because every other year they have a problem with drought,’” Wolfe said.

What would the region look like? Earlier this year, a group of local thinkers led by Brandeis University professor Brian Donahue published an elaborate report laying out a scenario in which New England, in the year 2060, has three times as much farmland as it does now—a full 6 million acres, or 15 percent of the entire landmass, upon which to raise crops and livestock that would be consumed by the local population. Under these conditions, the authors of the report argue, New England could grow 50 percent of its own food.

To be blunt, experts say that the New England food economy stands to benefit from the damage that global warming threatens to do to other parts of the country.

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Achieving this goal would require significant changes to land use. First, New England would have to produce almost all of its own vegetables, which Donahue and his coauthors estimate would require approximately 500,000 acres. We would also have to grow about half of fruit we eat—another 500,000 acres—and produce all of our own dairy. For that, Donahue says, farmers could make use of the region’s vast stretches of rocky upland soil, which is no good for growing crops but can work very well as grazing land. “We think that’s a place where we could stand to sacrifice a couple million acres of forest,” said Donahue.

In their report, Donahue and his allies primarily focus on scaling up production of crops like sweet corn, carrots, and winter squash that are already being grown and raised in New England. But in a warmer future, New England farming could also yield different crops, like watermelons, wine grapes, and even peaches. “Those are things we can grow but no one can make a really good living from them, because you can’t really compete in the national marketplace,” Wolfe said. “We can only grow short growing-season types that don’t produce as much.”

More familiar crops can also benefit from longer growing seasons, in that farmers can grow varieties that mature over a longer period of time, and tend to be higher yielding. “In an odd way, this cuts in our favor—when you look at the things that we might want to produce here, which would be more fruits, more vegetables, and more cows on grass, a longer growing season helps all those things considerably,” said Donahue. “I don’t want to come off as an enthusiast for the climate warming in this part of the world, but if that’s the reality, it’s going to make some of these things, on balance, a little more possible, even as it presents us with a flood of new problems.”

That flood of new problems cannot be easily brushed aside, of course: They include pests and insects that have historically been killed off by New England’s cold winters, as well as bacterial and viral diseases that thrive in warmer and more humid climates. “In the southern states, the insect populations build up exponentially and puts huge pest pressures on the crops—farmers in the north don’t deal with that,” said Ricardo Salvador, a specialist in agriculture at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But shorter winters, less harsh winters, and warmer temperatures will do away with that advantage.”

Perhaps the more significant obstacle, however, is the practical matter of how exactly a new generation of farms would re-take the land. For that to happen, MIT’s John Reilly points out, the region would need buy-in from landowners—who are not necessarily people motivated by the kind of revenue that small-scale farming would bring. Just because farming becomes theoretically viable in New England doesn’t mean private individuals would rush back into the business. “Clearing out the forests that have grown back is a big job and getting the soil back in condition to be productive agriculturally is not a trivial thing,” Reilly said. That would be just as much if not more of a concern when it comes to the New England land controlled and protected by state and federal governments, or by conservation groups; getting policy makers to agree to a large-scale, organized effort to return to farming would not be trivial.

All that said, it’s not clear that a centralized push would be a prerequisite for farming in New England to enjoy a revival—in fact, one of the things that makes some experts optimistic about it is that farms in New England are, by geographical necessity, small. This makes it easier to imagine them proliferating without any one individual making a massive investment, and it also positions them to be more nimble than their giant competitors out West, which tend to focus on one or two crops. “Those are very, very brittle systems that are easily exposed to...the unpredictability of climate change,” said John Carroll, a professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire who says New England agriculture is already on the cusp of a “revolution.”

Like the subsistence farmers who dotted the local landscape in the 18th and 19th centuries, New England’s new school of farmers could make relatively low-risk decisions about what to plant where and when. Given a climate in which, as Dave Volante puts it, “the only pattern is that there is no pattern,” the clearest path to success may be planning a harvest so diverse that, no matter how the weather plays out, we can count on something good to come up.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail leon.neyfakh@globe.com.

Related:

If urban farming took off, what would Boston look like?

Hindsight: How New Englanders invented the wilderness

An urban farming revolution

Bring back the strange apples!

How to solve climate change with cows (maybe)

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