Farming Through the Climate Emergency | Civil Eats
The author holding very dry soil in April 2021, when in years past the soil would be much wetter.

Farming Through the Climate Emergency

‘For those of us who tend the land, grow food, and steward ecosystems, climate change is playing out every day, every season, and in every extreme weather event.’

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

There used to be fog here. Growing up, my family’s land in Sebastopol, California was swampy in the winter and wet with dewdrops on summer mornings. When I started farming here 12 years ago, I relished the cool mornings that meant rows of lush broccoli, blood-red beets, and crunchy lettuces all summer long. I would spend half the day tending the soil under grey skies, wearing long sleeves to keep warm as much as to keep the sun off my skin. Back then, there used to be fog.

I founded Red H Farm on a shoestring in 2009, privileged to have access to an acre of soil. The farm sits low in the landscape and it used to flood every winter. That time of year, my boots would sink shin-deep in the muck. A seasonal pond fills up when it rains, and usually remains home to a deafening chorus of frogs every night from December through April. Planting was often impossible before May.

This year, for the first time in my 37 years, the nights have been quiet. Where there is usually a cacophony of frogs there is silence. The nights are still and frozen, hitting record low temperatures. The pond is dry. As we have turned the corner into spring, with rainfall at only 40 percent of average, I don’t know where the frogs have gone to mate, but it’s not on my farm. Instead of worrying that my early crops will rot in waterlogged soil, I am dragging the hose from bed to bed as I tuck young starts into the ground. Will they survive?

Ever since the old well on the farm collapsed six years ago, I’ve been dry-farming. Usually, the residual moisture from annual flooding makes it possible to get a lush harvest of late spring and early summer crops, from lettuce to summer squash, as well as delicious dry-farmed tomatoes in the fall. But this year, I am looking into whether I can afford to dig a new well, at the same time that Governor Gavin Newsom just declared a drought emergency in Sonoma and Medocino counties.

Mulching crops is a cornerstone of land management, helping hold water in, suppress weeds, and increase soil organic matter.

Mulching crops is a cornerstone of land management, helping hold water in, suppress weeds, and increase soil organic matter.

Right now, however, my furrowed brow is about more than what will happen to my spring transplants. I was already getting ready to make big changes to what I grow as summer temperatures have soared year after year. Rather than averaging in the 80s, summers in Sebastopol now regularly hover in the 90s with jumps into the triple digits. The heat waves have become impossible for my particular constitution and labor-intensive, agroecological farming style. I have realized shifting even further away from high-labor crops is necessary to keep growing food for my community. This means earning a living with fewer quick crops like radishes and greens and more slow-growing (but less profitable) crops like winter squash and onions.

As I consider the already-drying soil and the inevitable long, hot, fogless summer ahead of us, I am reminded of recent smoke-filled skies—of respirators, stinging eyes, and images of farmworkers without proper PPE, flames raging in the background. I am reminded of what it felt like to sneak back into an evacuation zone to water my greenhouse, and to jump into action when my community put emergency food systems in place and needed produce. I am reminded of the exhaustion and tears at the end of long days. Of my feelings of guilt when I opted out and stayed inside, knowing how many Latinx farmworkers couldn’t make that same choice.

For people on land, this is what climate change looks like.

In years past, the fields at Red H Farm would be flooded in the spring.In years past, the fields at Red H Farm would be flooded in the spring.In years past, the fields at Red H Farm would be flooded in the spring.

In years past, the fields at Red H Farm would be flooded in the spring.

Climate change can seem academic with its charts, graphs, and foreboding futures. But for those of us who tend the land, grow food, and steward ecosystems, climate change is playing out every day, every season, and in every extreme weather event. It weighs heavy on our hearts, as we experience the living change deeply and acutely. It is a great privilege to know a piece of land as well as I know this farm. But maintaining a deep relationship with one place means that I feel the changes viscerally. They are undeniable. And my livelihood is on the line.

And I’m definitely not alone. According to the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service:

Climate change has the potential to adversely impact agricultural productivity at local and regional scales through alterations in rainfall patterns, more frequent occurrences of climate extremes (including high temperatures or drought), altered patterns of pest pressure, and changes in seasonal and diurnal temperature patterns.

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To make that more tangible, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that in 2019, the U.S. experienced 14 separate billion-dollar disasters, including three major inland floods, eight severe storms, two tropical cyclones, and one wildfire event. They note that, “2019 mark[ed] the 5th consecutive year in which 10 or more separate billion-dollar disaster events have impacted the U.S.” That same year, agricultural producers reported that they were unable to plant crops on more than 19.4 million acres of land. Seventy-three percent of those acres were in 12 Midwestern states where commodity crop growers were impacted by heavy rainfall and flooding.

Here in Sonoma County, 2019 brought one of the most significant floods in recent history. It was followed later by of that year, which burned 77,758 acres. Farmland flooded. Farmland burned.

Farmers are nimble and used to the whims of a life in deep relationship to natural systems. But the unpredictability, the extremes, and the catastrophes are getting to be too much. While the data is slim on farmers ceasing operations due to climate-related stress, in my small community, I know farmers who are shutting their operations down this year, moving to more water-secure land, or transitioning to cannabis to decrease the number of acres under irrigation and increase profit. It’s likely the water table will be even more affected as more and more rolling hills are planted with young, thirsty grape vines.

As I enter the growing season, the impacts of the stress are visible on my face, and in my sleeping patterns. The daily calculations involved in figuring out how to get enough water to produce crops are exhausting. My farm workload remains the same, but I am looking for additional ways to supplement my income through teaching, consulting and writing, to help mitigate the financial hit I will inevitably take.

Amidst all of this, I am grateful to be farming using the principles of agroecology—an approach to farming credited to Indigenous land stewards and peasant farming systems focused on building soil, conserving water, fostering diversity and farming in relationship with the ecosystem, not in dominance of it. My topsoil won’t blow away in a dust storm this summer, because the soil is always covered in mulch. If I lose a crop to extreme heat or cold, I will have other things to harvest because my farm is so diverse. My land stands a chance in a drought because after years of building soil and eliminating tillage, it acts like a sponge when the raindrops do come. My farming comrades across California, will come to my aid if a small crisis hits because I have built a deep, caring agricultural community around myself.

Red H Farm.

Red H Farm.

There is a growing contingent of farmers like me who can lean on their stewardship practices and farming networks to support them as the climate crisis bears down. Many of these farmers hope to be part of the web of solutions. But that is not the story for much of this country’s farm systems. In fact, the shift toward extractive, colonial agriculture has contributed to the warming of the planet, as carbon leaves the soil and enters the atmosphere with every pass of the tractor. As soil scientist Jane Zelinkova wrote in the recent anthology All We Can Save:

Over the last twelve thousand years, we have lost about 133 billion metric tons of carbon from this soil, striped away as humans converted native grasslands and forests into agricultural fields and rangelands, roads, and cities. The main driver of this loss—the plow—revolutionized farming and fundamentally altered the trajectory of human history.

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In the U.S., as European colonizers made their way across the continent, bolstered first by the enslavement of people from Africa and then by the Homestead Act of 1862, they murdered and displaced Indigenous land stewards and eventually busted sod throughout the Midwest and into the west. This wave of colonization went hand in hand with a massive shift in the way we produced food and textiles—and that shift helped accelerate the release of all those tons of carbon. Today, roughly 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions comes directly from modern, industrialized agriculture, and when we account for processing, food waste, refrigeration, and transportation, the food system accounts for 19-29 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions

Agroecology, on the other hand, is a key solution to the climate crisis. Our land can sequester carbon and become more resilient to the impacts of extreme temperatures and precipitation. The same practices that will help us chip away at this crisis will help us withstand it, albeit barely. We must de-center industrial and colonial approaches and re-center and follow Indigenous leadership, and the leadership of people of color, who hold the ancestral knowledge for how to do things a different way.

Agroecology is our only hope for the future as it is too late to head off the climate impacts we’re already feeling. But it won’t change the fact that this moment demands both unimaginable nimbleness and radical acceptance. What’s more, it won’t change the fact that decarbonizing our food system and nurturing our ecosystems will be up to new farmers, small-scale farmers, and farm cooperatives. This is a land-insecure group of people who are often making short-term, increasingly high-risk, high-cost, low-return investments to do so. And in many cases, the math just isn’t working.

All of this leaves me wishing for the grey skies under which I grew up—and a time when there used to be fog.

Caitlin Hachmyer owns Red H Farm in Sebastopol, CA. She teaches agroecology at Sonoma State University, is a core educator with Agroecology Commons' Bay Area Farmer to Farmer Training program and coordinates Celebrating Women's Leadership in Food. Read more >

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  1. Susie Hagemeister
    Well written. I feel hopeful that the word is getting
    out more and more. I just wish it could be front page news!!!

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