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When Heaven and Harvest Collide

When Heaven and Harvest Collide

When Mother Nature brings her fury to New England, Yankee farmers show True Grit

BY STEVE HOLT / ART R.C. AZCUETA


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The peach. That velvety skin, colored pink, orange, and yellow like a Summer sunset. Teeth sink into that soft, warm flesh, juices with nowhere to go but up the nose, on the cheeks, down the chin. So ripe. So sweet. 

For many, the stone fruit has come to embody the season. But in 2016, for New England growers, “peach” was spelled d-e-s-p-a-i-r. There was none. Zip. A mild winter, followed by a mid-February freeze that sent temperatures plummeting below to 10 below zero or colder, obliterated nearly all the early peach blooms on orchards throughout the region—and with them any hope of a New England-grown peach.

“Within a week or two, you should be seeing where
the bloom falls off and the little bud – that’s your peach,” grower Darlene Dame remembers. “And they just weren’t there.”

The Johnston, R.I., land where four generations of the Dames live has been producing food since 1890, says Darlene Dame. But combined with a smaller-than-normal apple harvest, the peach loss of 2016 was a blow to the orchard and farm operated by Darlene, her husband, and their son. She says they knew they were in trouble when the winter temperatures rarely stayed in the 20s, providing the “cold weather dormancy” fruit trees need in their growing rhythm. The “Valentine’s Day Massacre,” as some growers called that February 14th cold snap that overspread the region, was the nail in the coffin for the peach crop. From Maine to Rhode Island to Vermont, an estimated 90% of the New England peach crop was lost, forcing many peach growers to swallow their pride and sell peaches grown in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and further south. 

On the surface, the absence of local peaches was a tragic blow to a piece of summertime nostalgia. But for the families that grow them, it was another reminder of how vulnerable they are to the whims of climate and weather. For those small growers, climate events like hurricanes, drought, and deep freezes often have deep and potentially devastating financial impacts. For the rest of us, weather is just a Northeast inconvenience. 

The Nicewicz family has been growing produce, including peaches, in Bolton, Mass., since the 1920s. As a result of the deep freeze in February 2016, Ken Nicewicz says he lost all 68 acres of his peaches – which typically account for about a quarter of his profits. Growing a diverse array of fruits and vegetables, however, Nicewicz thought he was ready, planting more of the crowd-pleasers like melons and winter squash to hopefully make up some of the difference. But Nicewicz found that the loss of the popular peach harmed sales of his other produce as well.

“We felt it at the farmer’s markets,” he recalls. “A lot of people didn’t show up because there were no peaches. When you lose fruit, it’s devastating.”

To make matters even worse, a severe drought sucked more than half the region dry in 2016, forcing farmers like Nicewicz to make agonizing choices about their livelihoods.

“We judiciously said, ‘what crops are we going to water this week? What crops are we going to let go watering at all?’” he says. “It was a trying year.”

It was not the first trying season for New England growers, of course. Many families, with generations of farming under their belt, are quite used to the unpredictable ups and downs by now. 

Alex Dowse lost 80% of her Sherburne, Mass., orchard’s apple crop in a single night in May 2012. Temperatures soaring to the 90s that March forced buds to develop early on the trees, only to be destroyed in a couple of early May freezes. This forced Dowse Farm to source fruit from other growers and work out a “survival strategy centered around refinancing, reducing inputs, and future planning for renewals,” she says.

For Vermont, New England’s largest agricultural economy, the most trying weather event came in September 2011. That’s when Hurricane Irene stalled out over the Green Mountain State, flooding and eroding fields and leaving entire fields of harvestable produce under water.

Sadly, New England growers get little help from state and federal government when disaster strikes. The subsidized crop insurance issued by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is utilized almost solely by large cereal crop growers in the Midwest. Many of the crops grown here in the Northeast are considered “specialty,” and not insured the same way. Nicewicz says the USDA used to insure his fruit through a number of programs to help mitigate crop loss but has since handed off the responsibility to smaller, private insurance agencies. And as he and other growers were reminded after the freeze of 2016, the effectiveness of a farm’s insurance in the wake of crop loss varies based on the policy a farmer has chosen.

“We bought the least expensive policy, so we had the least amount of coverage,” he says. “Though we did receive a check from the insurance company, it in no way reached the value of the crop we lost.”

Tom Sproul, assistant professor of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Rhode Island, studies agricultural risk management and crop insurance. Working with growers in Rhode Island, Sproul has found that absent meaningful access to the federal safety net, there are three main ways New England growers are managing the risks inherent to farming: savings, diversification, and forward contracting.

The first and likely hardest method for mitigating agricultural risk is building up a substantial savings account. Sproul says “sitting on a pile of cash is a great way to smooth out variations in your income”—though he admits this is quite difficult for most New England farmers to achieve. For their part, with no crop income from November to July in a good year, the owners of Dame Farm—who decline any grants or subsidies on principle—reluctantly tapped into various lines of credit in 2016 just to keep the rest of the farm going after their peaches were decimated. 

For many New England farmers, growing a diverse array of products can serve as something of an insurance policy in itself. On a diversified farm, a hot, dry summer that hurts lettuce could make for a bumper crop of tomatoes. After losing their peaches, Nicewicz planted more winter squash, cantaloupes, and watermelons—in addition to cherries, legumes, eggplants, sweet corn, and other crops—to try to make up some of the difference. At the less-diversified Dame Farm, where the 2016 freeze also claimed nearly three-quarters of the apple crop, Darlene Dame says they relied heavily on the farm’s pick-your-own sunflowers and blueberries to recoup some of the losses, as well as a farm stand and onsite activities like a corn maze and wagon rides. 

But in Sproul’s experience, the biodiversity farms can actually hurt them when they go to apply for insurance. That’s because underwriting and adjusting claims for, say, thirty crops being grown on a single small farm creates a bit of an administrative nightmare for an insurance company. What’s more, crop insurance was pretty clearly tailored to large-scale operations, with the percentage of fruit and vegetable farms insured nationally in 2009 at less than half that of farms growing commodity crops like corn, soy, and wheat. Here in New England, that number is likely much lower.

So, if most growers aren’t sitting on a stack of cash and public and private crop insurance don’t provide a reliable safety net for New England farmers, what protections do growers here have when disaster strikes? For one, some state governments and advocacy groups have set up emergency funds through which farmers can apply for low- or no-interest loans to recoup losses from weather and other disasters. Last year, for example, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced that his government would be offering emergency loans of $5,000 to $10,000 to growers adversely impacted by the nearly year-long drought. 

In Vermont, the Emergency Farm Fund – which formed in 2011 after Hurricane Irene devastated the state’s agricultural sector – offers no-interest loans up to $10,000 for farmers impacted by weather-related disasters. Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, which administers the loan program, opened the fund twice in 2016: once for farmers impacted by the peach crop loss and once for the drought, according to CISA Special Projects Director Margaret Christie. 

“It’s not a replacement for local, state or national policies to aid producers—particularly given the increase in volatile weather due to climate change,” she says, “but it is a good example of a community coming together to show real support for local farmers.”

Former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross says that thanks to community-based programs like the EFF, not a single Vermont grower lost their farm as a result of Hurricane Irene.

But as on fields of sport and battle, the best defense when acts of nature threaten agricultural fields may be a good offense. In the absence of any meaningful crop reimbursement safety net for growers in Rhode Island and New England, Sproul says farmers are managing their risk for the season, in many cases, before a single seed is planted. He says “forward contracting”—pre-selling crops before they’re grown – transfers some of a growing season’s risk to the consumer. In the Grain Belt, this often takes the form of farmers contracting with grain elevators or formally participating Chicago’s futures market. 

Here in New England, forward contracting can mean contracting with large institutions like hospitals or universities to provide fresh produce. Many experts believe these “farm-to-institution” arrangements will be an increasingly important component of a sustainable local agriculture system. But on a farm-by-farm basis, forward contracting most commonly takes the form of community supported agriculture programs. Maybe you haven’t thought about your CSA as an insurance policy for a local farmer, but that’s exactly what it is: when you pay for a season’s worth of produce up front, growers receive capital to invest in seeds, planting, labor, and other costs. In exchange, growers divest a share of the farm revenues and off-load some of the risk.

Sproul has even written an academic paper suggesting that consumers are willing to pay more for their food to support their local growers and that farmers should price CSA shares in closer correspondence to the risk transferred from farmer to consumer.

“If you have a crazy anomalous drought or flood that happens in June, diversification doesn’t help you there,” Sproul says. “Having sold half your farm to the consumers helps you.”

As they approach the height of the 2017 growing season, New England’s gritty growers are tightening their belts, making adjustments, and praying for the best. As some analysts predict a bumper crop for peaches across the region, Dame Farm hired fewer locals to work the fields this year than in seasons past, and Darlene hopes her pick-your-own sunflower and blueberry business will make up for what could be a slightly lighter peach crop on her orchard. But she’s grateful there will be peaches at all.

Northeast in Sherborn, Mass., Alex Dowse is in strategic planning mode, rethinking her long-term plantings based on her customers’ changing wants. Even in the face of disasters or shortfalls in production, Dowse says she is “stubbornly muddling on.”

And in Bolton, Mass., optimism abounds. Gazing out over an orchard-full of brilliant pink peach blossoms earlier this spring, Ken Nicewicz is struck by “how beautiful it is.” These blossoms weren’t here a year ago. And while there are never any guarantees, this season they’ll hopefully produce a profitable peach crop for the Nicewicz family nd help bring a summer tradition back to the region. That’s good enough for Ken.

Says Ken: “We’ve been smiling a lot.”

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