WINDHAM, Maine — Bumbleroot Organic Farm co-owner Melissa Law and climate resilience specialist Sarah Simon of the Maine Farmland Trust walk shoulder to shoulder through tall grass in the field that marks the outermost edge of Law’s farm. They speak quickly, sometimes laughing, sometimes intensely, catching up in the shadow of a row of towering pines that stretches 1,000 feet toward a pollinator meadow and beyond that, dense forest.
In front of the pines, in sharp contrast, are four long rows of newly and strategically planted perennials, 400 in total. Although most were only about 6 inches when they went into the ground in April, some already peek above their knee-high, blue cylindrical plant shelters. The 12 species of woody, bushy perennials will mature at varying heights. It will take more than 20 years for the American Mountain Ash, American Plum, and Redbud closest to the pines to grow to their full height of 25 feet, while the Indian Currant in the row farthest from the pines will reach its 5-foot maturity in just two to three years.
Together, these perennials form a hedgerow that will help break the winds that pummel Bumbleroot’s four upper fields year-round, slowly and steadily eroding their nutrient-rich topsoil. The hedgerow fulfills one of numerous climate adaptation and mitigation goals Law and Simon set in 2021 during their collaboration as participants in The Climate Adaptation Fellowship, an ambitious peer-to-peer learning program that paired 37 fruit and vegetable farmers and agricultural advisers from eight states across the Northeast. This growing season, farmers in the region, like regions across the country, once again contend with dramatic weather conditions that impact their crops and, consequently, the food that surrounding communities not only cherish but rely upon.
“Every season is a different set of challenges in terms of weather patterns,” Law said. “We have had hail storms in July. We had a really serious drought in 2020, and then [last] July, we had an incredibly wet month where our crops were totally pummeled with water for a month straight. Usually, our first frost in the fall happens in late September or early October. [In 2020,] it didn’t happen until early November.”
Bumbleroot’s stunning tract spans 89 acres, though the farm operates on less than eight of those. The Maine Farmland Trust purchased the land in 2016 to protect it from development and support farmer access, subsequently selling it to Law; her husband, Ben Whalen; and co-owners Abby and Jeff Fisher. The sale allowed the foursome to move their farm to Windham; 2016 marked their first season growing organic vegetables, flowers, and herbs there. Law is deliberate when she says they are “stewarding” this land.
In addition to a 200-family CSA and roadside farm stand, Bumbleroot has many wholesale accounts in Greater Portland, including local markets and prominent restaurants such as Scales, Fore Street, and Leeward. The farm is not just an entrepreneurial endeavor. Its website articulates the partners’ values clearly, stating they stand for “equity, climate action, and food sovereignty.” Since 2019, Law has served a three-year term with the Maine Climate Council. In 2019, Whalen testified to members of the House Agriculture Committee about organic agriculture, soil health, and climate mitigation. Last year, Bumbleroot and the Maine Farmland Trust co-hosted a well-attended public field walk and discussion centered around Bumbleroot’s efforts to adapt to climate change and improve soil health.
Since farming Bumbleroot, Law has found the erratic and unpredictable weather challenging in various ways, including production gaps and inconsistent availability and quality of their vegetables. Frustrated by these conditions and committed to climate action, in 2020 she applied to and was accepted as a fellow in the Climate Adaptation Fellowship. The program paired her with Simon, an agricultural adviser whom she knew through her acquisition of the Bumbleroot property.
The Climate Adaptation Fellowship is a partnership between the University of Maine, the USDA Northeast Climate Hub, and the Rutgers Climate Institute. Farmers and their advisers follow a climate adaptation curriculum and take workshops on climate science, adaptation, mitigation, and communication. Additionally, the fellowship requires community outreach, which Dr. Rachel Schattman, assistant professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine, said is particularly critical: “Climate change has often been a polarizing conversation in the United States, yet our group believes it’s an important topic to think about, talk about, and organize around. None of those things is fully possible without making the climate dialogue that we have with friends, family, and peers as inclusive as possible.” Schattman is one of the program’s three co-leads.
Finally, the fellowship provided participants with a team of specialists with climate science training to answer questions and connect fellows to outside sources. Law and Simon worked with Joshua Faulkner, an expert in agricultural hydrology at the University of Vermont Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and Jason Lilley of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, whose expertise includes reduced tillage and cover cropping.
For Law, the fellowship was an opportunity to look at “the bigger weather patterns taking place.” For Simon, it was a chance to learn from others. “There aren’t that many experts on climate adaptation and agriculture; it’s this new field we’re trying to figure out together,” she said. “So being part of this fellowship was a chance to work with some experts who’ve been thinking a lot about these issues and try to figure out what that looks like on the ground on real farms.”
When Law and Simon began Bumbleroot Farm’s risk assessment in January 2021, they started by identifying weather patterns — like wind, severe storms, and spring snowmelt — and determining how each affected the farm. One impact stood out among the others: erosion. Law said the impact was most evident on the farm’s sloped fields and showed up in the vegetables that Bumbleroot delivers to its CSA, farm stand, and wholesale customers. “The quality and the nutrient density of the crops . . . wasn’t as good. And we weren’t getting yields that we get on our flat fields. They were succumbing to pest and disease pressure because they just didn’t have the strength and the health that they needed to be able to withstand the temperature extremes, the weather patterns, and the pest and disease.”
The farm is not an outlier. Because of cost and availability, the biggest obstacle farmers in the Northeast face — especially BIPOC farmers — is access to farmland, and as a result, many farmers plant on less desirable, sloping fields where erosion is more likely to occur in windy and rainy weather.
Once Law and Simon identified erosion, they spent the 2021 growing season meeting every few weeks to create a plan that included short-, medium-, and long-term goals to address the risk. They immediately pursued a trial to reduce tillage, observing the impact of tractor use on their soils, even taking tractors out of one field entirely.
Many other goals have come to fruition during the 2022 growing season. Aided by colleague Daniel Mays of Frith Farm in Scarborough, Maine, who shared his pioneering no-till system, Law and her partners have implemented a more regular use of cover crops, protecting fields from the elements and the soil from erosion.
Law and Simon walk beyond the hedgerow field and onto the lower part of the farm, eventually reaching the no-till field. Law uses her hands to dig into the dirt. She smiles, pulling up a large, hearty beet, which she shows to Simon — who also belongs to the Bumbleroot CSA. Law says she’s seen greater yields and better quality vegetables from the field this season thanks to the practices she and Simon set in motion, which resulted in fewer weeds and pests and more nutrient-rich soil.
The pair also established climate mitigation strategies to lower the farm’s greenhouse gas emissions. Many of these are in place this season, including the use of solar panels. And in addition to preventing erosion, the hedgerow is also a means of climate mitigation in the form of carbon sequestration. Its 400 perennials absorb — or “sequester” — carbon through photosynthesis, while over time, decaying plant matter adds to soil carbon stocks.
Schattman gets calls from agricultural colleagues around the world interested in running programs similar to The Climate Adaptation Fellowship. It was, however, a grant-funded pilot cycle, and there is no funding to support another. Schattman’s team plans to send a request to the USDA this fall to fund several fellowship programs in the Northeast and Midwest in partnership with the USDA climate hubs in those regions. Ultimately, she hopes to find a permanent home for the program. In the meantime, the curriculum is available online.
In a world where weather events caused by climate change are now the norm, the practical strategies generated by the Climate Adaptation Fellowship, like Simon’s work, are increasingly critical to farmers whose fates depend on the weather and the land. For her part, Simon is energetic and realistic about the task ahead. It is, she says, to “help people work with the land they’ve got to be successful, even in less than ideal circumstances.”
Visit the Bumbleroot Organic Farm farmstand Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 196 Highland Cliff Road in Windham, Maine. To learn more about The Climate Adaptation Fellowship, visit adaptationfellows.ne. To learn more about the Maine Farmland Trust, visit mainefarmlandtrust.org. Jocelyn Ruggiero can be reached at jocelyn@jocelynruggiero. Follow her on Twitter at @jocelynruggiero.