Maine Farmers Struggle with New, Harsher Climate Reality

The Northeast is warming faster than any other region in the contiguous U.S., which means longer, drier summers punctuated by more intense bouts of precipitation.



Tom Drew thought he’d seen it all. A dairy farmer of 30 years in Woodland, Maine, Drew has weathered an awful lot of change. On an overcast, chilly day last fall, he rested in his milking parlor. As he leaned his large frame on the metal table, he recounted the history of the farm, his family’s attachment to the old jack pines out front. Like many small- and medium-scale dairy farmers, remaining profitable is a challenge for Drew, and every day feels uncertain.

Even so, he wasn’t prepared for the drought of 2018. Drew watched as his pasture withered. He waited for rain that never came. Finally, he had to buy hay to feed his cows, a substantial extra cost that he didn’t manage to pay off until over a year later.

“I was forced to pay attention,” says Tom Drew of the drought of 2018. Drew has been farming all his life in Northern Maine, but he has never seen anything like the drought of 2018.

Tom Drew has been farming all his life in Northern Maine, but has never seen anything like the drought of 2018.

“You live through something horrible like [the drought of 2018], which is something I’ve never seen in my lifetime. . . . Could you survive two of those in a row here? No, I don’t believe you could,” says Drew. He typically cuts his own hay, and relies on rain throughout the summer to keep the grass growing. But that year, the rain just didn’t come. “You eventually see yourself having lived the extremes you couldn’t have imagined . . . I was forced to pay attention.”

Farming in Maine has always made for an unpredictable life, but that unpredictability has gotten worse. As the amount of carbon dioxide—and other greenhouse gases—in the atmosphere continues to rise unabated, farmers all over the country face extreme weather events and unpredictable temperatures, while consumers face the resulting food shocks.

Get the latest articles in your inbox.

Although all regions are warming, the Northeast is doing so faster than any other region in the contiguous U.S., and Maine farmers may have to adapt more than they could ever have imagined. Some are also changing their practices to improve their soil in hopes of mitigating some of the most extreme results of climate change.

In a state where abundant rainfall was once considered a given, Maine’s recent droughts have caused many farmers to rethink their strategies. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the Northeast is experiencing longer, drier summers punctuated by more intense precipitation events. In fact, the region is seeing more precipitation increases than anywhere else in the nation.

Ivan Fernandez, a professor at the University of Maine Climate Change Institute and lead author of a recent report on Maine’s Climate Future, says the summer of 2020 has borne out this pattern. “We’re living with a bit of whiplash this year, with both drought as well as extreme precipitation and they’re not very predictable.”

Rob Johanson with soggy soil in spring of 2019. Erratic weather and wet fields have affected the crop rotations at Goranson Farm. In addition to wetter weather, Rob Johanson has had to increase irrigation for periods of drought on his farm.

Rob Johanson with soggy soil in spring of 2019. Erratic weather and wet fields have affected the crop rotations at Goranson Farm. In addition to wetter weather, Rob Johanson has had to increase irrigation for periods of drought on his farm.

Sean Birkel, a University of Maine climatologist, notes that Maine is getting warmer and wetter overall. Much of this warming is occurring in the winter, with more rain, less snow, and nearly two weeks more of frost-free days than there were in 1930. Average annual precipitation has increased 15 percent since 1895. However, the combination of drought and intense rains complicates land management for farmers. In addition, the onset of spring temperatures is less predictable. Spring of 2019, for example, set records for rainfall and cold temperatures.

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, conditions that are occurring this year as well. As Jill Agnew, of Willow Pond Farm says, “You don’t have any idea what’s coming. It’s hugely variable—way more than it used to be.”

On a chilly day in March, Rob Johanson of Goranson Farm was waiting for his fields to dry out. Goranson Farm likes to let some fields rest as part of their crop rotation, but last year, Johanson had to scrap that plan because the fields that should be resting were the only ones that weren’t too wet to plant. Johanson grabbed a handful of soil to demonstrate how soggy it was; as he squeezed it into a ball in his hand, water seeped out around his fingers.

“You don’t have any idea what’s coming. The weather is hugely variable—way more than it used to be.”

He wanted to get his machines in to plant, he explained, but the soil was just too moist. “Could we hand transplant? Yes. Does it make economic sense? No. So we wait,” he said.

Surrounded by soggy fields, he switched gears and talked about how hot the summers have been. Johanson joked that he spends his summer vacation irrigating. “We’ve had to invest a lot in being able to get water to plants, it’s been an increasing expense every year for us, to buy pumps, more pipe, and more time to move irrigation around the farm.”

Farmers are used to being thrifty, but the changing weather conditions are requiring them to invest in more equipment. In addition to the money, there is the additional labor involved in setting up irrigation infrastructure and building new storage facilities. The changes keep piling up, as do the costs.

Gus Schultz digs in the carrot patch at King Hill Farm.

Gus Schultz digs in the carrot patch at King Hill Farm.

Fernandez points out that each farm has to find the best strategies to fund these new investments. “There are important contrasts that become accentuated with the changing climate, like larger farms versus smaller operations, and the ability to secure capital for investments, who can afford what kind of insurance . . . all of that becomes increasingly important as they wrestle with this.” Farmers operate on tight margins, so managing these added costs can be tough.

At King Hill Farm in Penobscot, Amanda Provencher remembers when they started farming 11 years ago, they might have had to irrigate once in August or September, or not at all. But lately there has been a steady progression in the other direction.

“One year it’s so dry and we’re like . . . ‘We’re setting up irrigation in July?’ And the next year it was June. And the last two or three years we have irrigated in April and May and that used to be the heaviest rainfall.” Like Tom Drew, she and her husband have had to buy hay for their cows—a short-term solution.

King Hill is known for its sweet winter carrots, which they have always harvested in the fall and stored in a root cellar throughout the winter. But Provencher explained that the root cellar is no longer enough. “Four years ago we had to convert parts of the barn into coolers because the root cellar wasn’t getting cold enough and stuff was either rotting or getting soft,” she said. While it may not seem like a big deal to put in cool storage or add some irrigation, both changes represent the kinds of expenses that farmers can’t necessarily pass on to consumers.

Beyond changing temperatures and drought, there are other, more subtle shifts occurring in the fields and forests. Throughout Maine, maple sugaring season is a time to celebrate winter’s thaw, collecting buckets and boiling sap around the clock. The timing of maple sugaring season, though, has been steadily creeping earlier.

Irrigation pipes ready to be set up at King Hill Farm.

Irrigation pipes ready to be set up at King Hill Farm.

Rob Johanson, who has been making maple syrup for nearly 40 years, used to have to start collecting sap in March, but now he’s thinking about it in early February, or sooner. Indeed, according to the USDA, in 2001, the earliest sap flow in Maine was on March 19. In 2018, it was February 1.

“Though there have been many changes on the farm over the years,” says Johanson. “This is the most recognizable shift.”

Blueberry farmers, too, are experiencing change. Although the extended warm temperatures Maine is experiencing can be beneficial in terms of an extended fall season, it also has implications for pests. The blueberry industry has been facing a tough new one, the spotted winged drosophila, which is thriving in part due to a less predictable deep freeze in the winter.

At Blue Hill Berry Company in Blue Hill, Nicolas Lindholm cultivates 100 acres of organic blueberries. He finds that insects and diseases are becoming more visible, but also that the shifting seasons are helping other native species thrive for a longer period of time.

“With the last frost in the spring getting earlier and the first frost in the fall getting later, a lot of plants, even native plants like goldenrod, can keep going and going,” says Lindholm. He explains that these weeds have been able to “produce more seed, or get more photosynthesis and feed their roots, so even with the native wild plants, there is more competition with the blueberries.” This requires more time weeding, to clear out space for the blueberries, at busy times when hands are needed on other tasks.

Nicolas Lindholm of Blue Hill Berry Company sees resilience in the genetic diversity of wild blueberries. But he worries about the impacts of the increasingly variable weather.

Nicolas Lindholm of Blue Hill Berry Company sees resilience in the genetic diversity of wild blueberries. But he worries about the impacts of the increasingly variable weather.

In addition to the goldenrod, Lindholm and his wife, Maryann, have also noticed some other “odd activity” in the fall. Some plants seem to be reacting to false winters and blossoming. For the last few years, he says, buds have been waking up following a long, warm fall, a cold snap in late October, and a warm stretch in November.

“They think they’ve been through winter,” Lindholm explains. “Then of course they get frosted by real winter in December, and the buds are destroyed and the plants lose a lot of energy.” So far, Lindholm has only noticed this in one particular species of wild blueberry, but it seems ominous. The extended seasons, he says, “are throwing strange wrenches.”

Jill Agnew of Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus says that the changes she has seen are becoming hugely economic. “You just don’t have any idea what’s coming,” says Agnew.

Jill Agnew of Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus says that the changes she has seen are becoming hugely economic. “You just don’t have any idea what’s coming,” she says.

In May at Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus, two employees were picking kale and spinach in an unheated greenhouse near the farm stand while farmer Jill Agnew worked in the orchard. Agnew started Willow Pond Farm more than 30 years ago, and was the first in the state to try out the community supported agriculture (CSA) model.

She is a slight woman, still wearing her winter flannel because it’s been such a chilly spring. She talks about how her oregano plants, which usually winter over, died this year. Following fluctuating fall temperatures, Agnew’s raspberries also took a major hit.

Agnew typically doesn’t mind that things are always shifting on the farm. “That’s why we like farming. You have to pay attention,” she says. “You have to learn and adapt every single year. But the changes are coming so fast, and the fact is it’s becoming hugely economic too.” Like so many others, she’s had to invest in hoop houses, change her planting schedule, and adapt.

The good news is that many Maine farmers are already working to become more resilient by rotating a diverse number of crops, managing irrigation differently, and tilling their soil less. As Agnew says, “That’s what we do—we adapt to changes.” She is working hard to get a lot of organic matter into our soil, which has been shown to make soil behave like a sponge and reduce flooding in addition to storing carbon.

As more and more research suggests links between sustainable farming practices, climate change mitigation, and farm resilience, policies to promote these practices are also spreading. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act this spring, precisely to better understand these linkages and support farmers who want to use these practices to protect their farms.

As we turn and slowly walk up toward the barn, Agnew says, “I’m feeling pretty resilient right now, pretty OK.” The gray of the day remains, but the rows of white apple blossoms, stark against the dark tree trunks, lead us on.

A version of this story appeared in Maine Farmland Trust’s annual journal. All photographs © Greta Rybus.

View Comments (2)