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‘We’re trying to be good stewards of the land.’ State grants help farmers fight climate change

David Dumaresq checks to see if the Romanesco is ready to harvest at his farm in Dracut.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Next spring, David Dumaresq plans to install two electric pumps for the irrigation system that serves his Parker Road farm in Dracut.

Dumaresq said the project will help the farm better absorb the more frequent future droughts expected due to climate change, since replacing existing diesel pumps with more efficient electric ones will save energy and costs during those dry periods.

“Last year we came through the worst drought in 20 years and we had to invest so many hours putting water on the fields,” he said of his business, Farmer Dave’s. “I realized if we are going to have a lot of droughts in the future, that’s an awful lot of diesel usage every year.”

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The project, supported by a recent state grant, will not only make the farm more resilient to the effects of climate but help in the fight against it, Dumaresq said. “It will reduce our carbon footprint immensely.”

Farmer Dave’s was among 84 recipients of $2.9 million recently distributed by the state Department of Agricultural Resources through five grant programs to help local farms undertake climate-related initiatives, ranging from installing solar arrays to improving energy efficiency, enhancing soil health, and conserving water.

A greenhouse for winter greens that is under construction at Farmer Dave's will be heated by the sun.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“The goal is to address climate-related needs on farms to ensure the economic resiliency of the agricultural sector but to do so recognizing that we have a changing climate and what agriculture can do to help mitigate that,” Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner John Lebeaux said in an interview.

Climate change poses numerous impacts on Massachusetts farms, Lebeaux said, citing as example the challenges growers faced from the 2020 drought and this year’s heavy rains. He said extreme heat also can be harmful to some crops and worsen insect problems.

Converting to no-till growing, in which growers plant their crops without plowing first, is an example of “doing the right thing for the environment while at the same time enhancing production,” Lebeaux said. By not turning over their fields, farmers keep nutrients in the soil and sequester carbons that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere. “It’s a classic win-win.”

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Lebaux said the climate-related grant programs are generally over-subscribed, evidence that farmers want to be part of the solution to climate change. “Some of them tell me the grants are helping them to do that, to move to the next level.”

Dumaresq, whose farm encompasses 90 acres including leased fields in Dracut, Tewksbury, and Westford, has been interested in reduced-carbon farming since his days as a Peace Corps volunteer assisting growers in Ecuador.

Farmer Dave's in Dracut received a state grant last year supporting its purchase of a no-till planter.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“I analyze our production systems with a fine-tooth comb, looking for where we can kick out any carbon production,” said Dumaresq, who also purchased a no-till planter with a prior state grant last year, and in 2016 installied a rooftop solar array at his produce packing building. The solar panels will power the future electrical pumps.

Dumaresq’s ultimate goal is to promote a local food system in which all residents can help reduce carbon use by buying locally produced food, saving the energy costs of packaging and shipping from distant locations.

“I have three kids, myself,” he said. “I want to leave them a world where hopefully the climate is no worse than it is now.”

Medway Community Farm, a nonprofit that received grants to install a ground-mounted solar array and to purchase two new irrigation pumps, sees the fight against climate change as in keeping with its overall mission, said Carol Collord, the president of the farm’s board of directors.

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“We’re trying to be good stewards of the land,” she said, noting that the farm also minimizes tillage of the soil, follows organic crop-growing practices, and works to educate school children about farming.

Juliette Rooney-Varga, director of UMass Lowell’s Climate Change Initiative and a professor of environmental science, said that in addition to helping insulate farms from future climate change impacts, the green-oriented improvements farms are undertaking will reduce the risk of future food shortages in the event of major weather events.

“The COVID-19 pandemic showed that our food supply chain really lacks resilience. And with climate change we could see disruptions that are much more severe. It is going to benefit us to have a shorter supply chain with more local food production,” said Verga-Rooney, codirector of UMass Lowell’s new Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy.

Rooney-Varga said the state grants, which range from $1,335 to $50,000, are not sizable enough to “transform the agricultural industry in Massachusetts. But the projects they support will save farms money in the long run and increase their capacity to take climate action, and serve as models for how to take action.

A view of the solar power controls outside the packing building at Farmer Dave's in Dracut.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“If we are looking for ways to cut emissions through our food system, the biggest thing we can do is for all of us to reduce our food waste and switch to healthy, plant-based diets,” she added.

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Medway Community Farm grows vegetables and flowers on 3 acres of an overall 14-acre site on Winthrop Street, and on two separate 2-acre sites in town.

“We have definitely seen the impacts of climate change,” Collord said, citing in particular sharp swings between different extremes of weather.

“You get very hot, dry days and then it cools off and it’s wet and raining. That’s not great for the crops,” she said, noting that the farm lost an entire crop of cucumbers this year due to such a weather shift. She said the farm is also experiencing more intensive winds, which can contribute to soil erosion.

The 22.1-kilowatt solar array the farm plans to install with the help of a $40,576 state grant — and a $10,000 federal grant — will supply most of the power needed to operate the main farm.

“By converting to solar we reduce our overall carbon footprint,” Collord said, noting that the project also will save the farm money and protect it from future storm-related power outages.

With the help of a separate $21,519 state grant, the Medway farm plans to replace the existing overhead irrigation systems at its two other fields with more modern drip irrigation.

“We need reliable irrigation systems, especially when we are facing extreme drought,” Collord said, noting that the upgrade will also reduce the time and money needed to maintain the systems.

Edgewood Bogs,a Carver cranberry farm, plans to install updated automated technology for its irrigation system with the help of its $20,750 state grant, according to Matthew Rhodes, owner of the three-generation family business.

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The Tremont Street farm, started by Rhodes’s grandfather in the 1940s, encompasses 1,056 acres: 256 for cranberry growing and 800 to supply the water and sand needed for cultivation.

Irrigation systems operating at Edgewood Bogs cranberry farm in Carver.Handout

For the past decade, the farm has been able to save water and costs using automated technology that activates irrigation pumps only when watering is needed — to prevent frost in the spring and fall, and to keep the plants adequately moist during the summer growing season.

But Rhodes said the existing automation software had become outdated. Using a previous state grant, the farm in 2019 installed a more efficient system for three pumps. With the new grant, it will provide the updated technology for its nine remaining pumps.

“Water is a major resource and we should do everything we can to protect and preserve it,” Rhodes said.

And with less usage of the pumps and less need to drive around the fields to monitor the irrigation, the farm can reduce its use of diesel and electricity, helping with climate change and saving energy costs. Citing research findings by the UMass Cranberry Station in Wareham, Rhodes said managing water use by automation also enhances crop productivity.

“So we are using science to help farmers and the environment,” he said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

Volunteers from Middlesex Savings Bank worked in vegetable beds as they took part in a corporate volunteer day at Medway Community Farm.Joan Hill/Eclipse Photographics