Clayton Carter, owner of Fail Better Farm in Etna, said that the yield of several vegetables was significantly lower in 2016 because of the drought. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Climate change has affected Maine’s growers in many ways, from warming temperatures potentially shifting the state’s growing zones to a lack of available water compromising wild blueberry crops.

This year, though, one effect of the changing climate stood out the most for farmers and homesteaders. Throughout 2021, Maine farmers said they struggled more with extreme weather, from a long-standing drought to an exceptionally rainy July that compromised their crops.

The strange growing season wasn’t an anomaly as much as just the next step in a pattern of weird weather — one that will only get worse for growers as the climate continues to change. The solution might be found in the way farmers treat their soil.

As a farmer and someone who works on climate change policy, Melissa Law said extreme and unpredictable weather is always on the top of her mind.

“We had a severe drought in 2020 and then this year we had an incredibly wet July, which definitely impacted production here on our farm,” said Law, the owner of Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Windham and a member of the Maine Climate Council. “Those are just two different extremes. What we’re beginning to realize is that the extremes are going to continue to be more and more severe. It makes planning really difficult.”

When the weather is too dry, Law said, crops do not have enough water to thrive. Too much precipitation, like what growers saw in July, causes significant runoff and damages crops — especially if they have been weakened by drought conditions, as was the case for most of Maine.

Even the next generation of farmers has noticed how the extremes affect the growing season. Seventeen-year-old Ruby Green Jovin, youth representative for the Natural and Working Lands subgroup of Maine’s Climate Council and farm manager of Grace Pond Farm in Thomaston, said that on her family’s farm, she can see it firsthand.

“We are either in a drought or the fields are flooding, it’s 50 degrees or 80, there’s no breeze or there’s warnings of gusts up to 60 miles an hour,” Jovin said. “When we talk about climate change we think of things getting warmer, and that’s very true, but our day to day is affected by losing these in between states. We constantly need to change plans, either getting ready for the gusty storms or to go around to all of the chickens and mist them with water so they can cool down on the now regular 100 degree days.”

Aside from being a nuisance for crops and animals, the unpredictable weather can cause a domino effect for growers.

“Oversaturation of water makes it extremely hard to grow crops and leads to higher risk of disease. Drought conditions leave the soil incredibly dry and that creates a ripe environment for pest pressure,” Law said. “In all cases they just make the crops more vulnerable to external issues like pest and disease pressure.”

Climatologists and other scientists are working to get better at predicting extreme weather, which is only likely to continue — and get worse — in the future, according to Sean Birkel.

“One of the challenges is to reduce uncertainty so at the very least our decades-old projections can improve, but in terms of what growers should be preparing for in the near term, [they should be] adapting to managing more extremes,” said Birkel, research assistant professor and state climatologist at the Climate Change Institute and School of Earth and Climate Sciences at the University of Maine.

In the meantime, farmers have had to go back to basics. Law said that soil health is increasingly important.

“When you add organic matter to your soil it helps alleviate those extremes from having really harsh impacts,” Law said. “Focusing on covering your soils with cover crops or mulching, adding compost and organic matter to the soil to build the biodiversity in the microbiome of the soil, just helps build resilience to all of the weather extremes.”

Having an irrigation system is also important for the swings in precipitation.

Not only does an irrigation system provide water during droughts and dry periods, but studies show it boosts production in wet years by compensating for the variability in rainfall, said Rachel Schattman, assistant professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine School of Food and Agriculture.

“I think that the drought is catching a lot of people by surprise because historically we have had such evenly distributed precipitation patterns — 15 years ago nobody [in Maine] had irrigation and now it’s much more common because we need it.”

The issue is that these are often very costly solutions. Many smaller scale farms and homesteaders cannot afford preventative measures or infrastructure to adapt to the changes.

Ellen Stern Griswold, policy and research director at Maine Farmland Trust, recognized the cost issue — especially considering the amount of trial and error and experimentation that is usually involved in figuring out what works for a given farm.

This year, the Maine Farmland Trust launched the Maine Soil Health Network, which is testing the effectiveness of different healthy soil practices on farms throughout Maine. Griswold also pointed to the Maine Healthy Soils Program passed through the Legislature in June, which will provide information on all the programs that farmers need to help build their resilience to climate change from the ground up.

There will be more programs and funding to come for farmers, Griswold said, especially as the need for a robust local food system in Maine becomes clearer.

“As other areas of the country endure more extreme weather impacts, having a robust local food system is going to be really important to secure our food security in the state,” Griswold said.

“We can’t just count on most of our food coming from California when they’re so affected by drought and wildfire and extreme weather events. It’s important for our farms to be resilient [because] it’s important for us as consumers to have a really secure local food system.”