Maine’s Farmers Work to Adapt and Thrive in the Time of Climate Change

by Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer
Climate change is, of course, a global phenomenon, but out of the contiguous United States, the Northeast is experiencing it particularly severely. As Kate Olson recently reported in Civil Eats, farmers in Maine are “struggl[ing]” with this “new, harsher climate reality” that includes even more deeply unpredictable weather events and extreme temperatures. As Ivan Fernandez of University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute said to Civil Eats, “We’re living with a bit of whiplash this year, with both drought as well as extreme precipitation and they’re not very predictable.”

Why This Matters: This unpredictable mixture of drought and intense rains complicates land management for farmers.” Indeed, as Olson noted, “many farmers who were still recovering from the prior year’s drought, found their fields overwhelmed with precipitation, so soggy they couldn’t plant where they needed to.” This causes both hardship for farmers whose livelihoods can be devastated, as well as consumers who may experience food shocks as a result.

Many Changes: Climate change is impacting the Northeast in numerous ways. Not only are temperatures and rain patterns fluctuating heavily, but, as Olson said, there are “other, more subtle shifts occurring in the fields and forests.” For instance, the timing of maple sugaring season “has been steadily creeping earlier.” And, Sabrina Endicott in Food Tank reported recently that lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine are now declining because of increased water temperatures.

In large part, Maine’s temperate ecosystems are having difficulty adapting to warmer temperatures and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in coastal waters. Higher CO2 concentrations in the Gulf of Maine mean that shellfish and lobsters will increasingly have a hard time in forming shells, as the University of Maine notes in its Climate Futures reports.

These changes have placed farmers and fishermen “on the frontlines of climate change,” to borrow the words of Congressional Representative Chellie Pingree.

Resulting Adaptations: In response to these multiplicitous changes, Maine farmers are making adaptations to survive. As Civil Eats reported, some are converting parts of farms into coolers as cellars were no longer getting adequately cold. Others are setting up increased irrigation infrastructure. And these are only some of the many adaptations Maine farmers are making. With these added adaptations come added costs — costs that are not the “kinds of expenses that farmers [can] necessarily pass on to consumers.”

But these adaptations can also help Maine’s farmers become more resilient; Olson reported that many are now “rotating a diverse number of crops, managing irrigation differently, and tilling their soil less.” Pingree herself is working towards supporting these farmers on this mission towards resiliency; this year, she introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act and other pieces of legislation in order to “address ocean acidification, reduce food waste, promote local food systems and provide farmers with the tools to produce net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2040.” As she notes in the Bangor Daily News, in Maine (as elsewhere), “our environment is inextricably linked to our economy.” To preserve these industries and support these farmers, we must work to address climate change on a global scale and increase agricultural resilience.

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