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Extreme weather forces New England farmers to be more collaborative than ever

Our farm has bountiful tomatoes and squash but an iffy corn crop. Next door the story might be the opposite. This is what it means to grow food in a changing climate.

A puddle covers the road that leads to one of the barns at Gove Farm in Leominster.John Gove

I waded through the field of wet leaves. Mud grabbed at my rubber boots, making hard work out of walking. Cornstalks brushed against my rainsuit, and water trickled down my leg where I had worn a hole in the pants.

In front of me, the cornstalks varied in height. The tassels of some stood upward of 6 feet tall. Others only reached my chest. A few months earlier, my father, Paul Gove, the owner of Gove Farm in Leominster, had planted everything in this field in the same half hour. But now some of this corn would have to be harvested later than the rest — if it could be harvested at all.

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Our inconsistent sweet corn — something that could be a disappointment at a summer barbecue — was the result of extreme weather. This July was the second-wettest on record for Worcester County, with 12 inches of rain, more than triple the monthly average.

Wet fields prevent farmers from doing essential jobs. Planting and cultivating require most farmers to drive tractors and equipment through the fields, but like my rubber boots, things get stuck. “We went to plant, but we couldn’t even get on the fields,” says Ken Nicewicz, co-owner of Nicewicz Family Farm in Bolton.

On our farm, a lush strip of weeds spans the length of a field — a field that would have sweet corn if the tractor could have driven through.

Nearby, however, there is a silver lining to the rainclouds that defined the summer of 2023: Summer squash grows in excess, and tomatoes fill the vines they hang from.

These kinds of surprises and variations are typical. From farm to farm, crop success varies. Rain is not always the same, fields are laid out differently, and disease that hits in one place may not have taken over elsewhere. This is why farming in New England, more than in any other region in the United States, is collaborative. Farmers have to lean on one another to satisfy the demands of the market.

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Puddles in the waterlogged walkways between rows of lettuce at Gove Farm.John Gove

“New England is known for local,” says Trevor Hardy, owner of Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis, N.H. “There are a lot of small farms that have to work together to be successful.”

For example, the shelves at Nicewicz’s farmstand in Bolton mostly bear the produce from his fields. His tomato crop was slow, though, so the stand is stocked with tomatoes from our farm. We had a bounty from the beginning of the season.

This collaboration is one element of the resilience that it takes to farm in New England, especially as the weather gets more extreme.

In 2020, drought struck New England. After our irrigation pond dried up, we made improvements to ensure water for the crops in the following season. The next year brought the wettest summer on record. We had another drought in 2022, and now we are back in the mud.

When I was growing up, my grandfather would drive the tractor while my father and I were two of eight corn pickers. Starting from one end of a field, we would each take a row of sweet corn and handpick every ear until the other end of the field. The tractor, driving over the bare corn stalks behind me, would keep pace.

Paul Gove, owner of Gove Farm, drives a tractor as employees help to pick a field of sweet corn.John Gove

Now, the heavy rain washes nutrients out of the soil differently throughout our fields, causing some plants to grow faster or slower. Two of every three ears were not ready to pick on our first pass; my father drove beside the corn so as not to run it over. We returned to the fields multiple times to pick the rest.

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On the way back to the farmstand, we passed the peach orchard. Last year at this time ripe, juicy fruit hung from the branches. Now, branches bore only the weight of leaves. Around the Northeast, the peach crop was killed by a cold snap in February. In May, a late frost damaged the apple crop, too.

In the coming summers, missing fruits and vegetables at the local markets will not be unusual. Eating local means enjoying what is available, cooking squash when the corn does not grow, and waiting until next year for a fresh peach. A cookout after a hot summer day is not the same without ending up with a few corn kernels stuck in your teeth, and an imported peach pales in comparison to a fresh, juicy one, but nature runs its course.

An employee at Gove Farm in Leominster picks sweet corn after a heavy rainstorm.John Gove

Like a coach writing up plays and studying tape before a big game, farmers plan to adapt to weather throughout growing seasons. Drainage for wet years, precise irrigation for dry years, and a diverse variety of produce for everything in between.

“The weather is changing,” Nicewicz says, “and we need to change our perception of how we grow.”

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Along with running one of the largest farms in New Hampshire, Hardy also sells New England farmers most of the supplies they need to irrigate, cultivate, and harvest a crop. He is one of four distributors in the country for a new sensor technology that monitors field conditions to manage them more effectively and efficiently.

But even with such advances, New England farmers succeed only if their neighbors succeed. We compare notes on new technology, fill the holes in one another’s crops when we have excess, and share experiences in order to best keep up with demand for local produce. “It is a regional team effort,” Hardy says, “and everyone works together.”

John Gove is a family farmer and environmental journalist in Leominster.