While humanity spent twenty years denying, blaming, and arguing about how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, climate change has arrived. And we have spent almost no time planning for how we will adapt to the new reality.
On our farm, we have been making small tweaks in response to ten years of individual weather events that, when put together like pieces of a puzzle, now provide a portrait of our new climate. Mostly hotter and drier, but also sometimes colder and wetter. And definitely windier with more fires.
Many of the warm-season crops we farm have been grown in this area for a century or longer: tomatoes, peaches, melons, sweet corn. As spring weather has gotten warmer and drier, we’ve been able to plant and/or harvest these summer crops earlier in the year. But they also finish sooner, and it often gets too hot for them late in the summer. We’ve learned that losing crops to heat is no longer an “if”, but a “when”, and made changes to our cropping in response.
Other crops historically grown here are no longer adapted to the new climate. Virtually all of the land we currently farm was once planted in apricot orchards, for example. Now, it’s simply to warm in the winter most years for apricots. They don’t produce a crop reliably.
Meanwhile, we are growing a dozen or more crops that almost no one else in the area has historically farmed, from arugula to zucchini. That can make it difficult to know whether a particularly bad year for any of those items is due to overall poor adaptation to the area, or changes in the climate. Over the years, we’ve figured out the right windows for planting and harvesting these crops, as well as learned which varieties will do well here. Our goal has always been to grow as many different crops as possible in order to keep our CSA boxes full and interesting.
What is completely obvious to us, though, is that it’s getting harder to grow any vegetables at all here in the late summer. It’s always been a challenging time of year for us, as we have to plant cool-weather crops like broccoli, carrots, and lettuce during the hottest time of year and try to nurture them until the weather cools down. But that is also true for farmers in the Imperial Valley, which produces the vast majority of the winter vegetables grown in the U.S. It’s even hotter there than it is here.
The bigger problem is that heat waves like we had in August actually seem to affect our summer crops as much as the fall ones. We’ve tried extending the season for those crops later into the fall, without much success. Climate change does not cancel out the shorter days that summer vegetables know mean that Fall has arrived.
Meanwhile, we are now looking at significant heatwaves occurring later and later into the fall, and into our harvest season for cool season crops. This presents us with tremendous challenges. Next week, for example, forecasters are predicting 100 degree weather with low humidity and strong winds. We simply cannot harvest vegetables like spinach, arugula or kale in those conditions. And with the heatwave looking to occur on the days when we need to pack your CSA boxes, that means we can’t put those items in your boxes next week — even though we have them available in the field.
What we do have as a small farm in Northern California is a network of other farms in nearby regions with different microclimates than ours. It’s becoming clear that interdependency between farms will be key to the future of CSA agriculture, at least for us.
This fall we are working with our friends at Blue House Farm in Pescadero. For the next month, we will be featuring items from their cool and foggy fields just a few miles from the ocean. In particular, I am excited that they will be providing us with dry-farmed tomatoes and brussel sprouts — two crops that we simply cannot grow here and that they produce in abundance.
Gopher Glen Apple Farm is also located right on the coast — although a hundred miles further south. We are hoping to continue working with them to provide you with tasty apples, this year and in years to come.
We may also lean harder on two farms in the foothills region east of Sacramento, who benefit from somewhat more forgiving fall weather due to their higher elevation. Mountain Bounty in Nevada City has a CSA in the Lake Tahoe region and frequently includes items from Terra Firma in their winter boxes. And Flying V Farm is a brand new farm in Placerville started by a former TFF employee.
Over the years we have taken great pride in growing the vast majority of the crops in your CSA boxes ourselves, right here in Winters. But climate change is sending us a clear message that we will need to work more closely with other farmers if we want to successfully adapt to the new reality. It’s a message all of humanity will need to learn pretty quickly in the coming decades.