Milkweed: perennial pollinator

Gully-washing rainstorms are becoming the norm. “Nine of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have occurred since 1990,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. As climate change progresses, this is expected to become more common, deeply affecting everyone, from backyard gardeners to farmers with hundreds of acres.

With Covid-19 already wreaking havoc on local living and local food systems, climate resilience could not be a timelier topic. On social media, swaths of people are turning to the idea of Victory Gardens, embracing backyard food opportunities in uncertain times. Meanwhile, farmers are pivoting in unprecedented ways to ensure use of the food they’ve already invested in for 2020.

But beyond a pandemic, another wild card remains: Mother Nature. This year has already been marked by extreme weather patterns, and more is sure to come, particularly in the form of precipitation.

“Heavy rains cause soil erosion, and flooding damages crops…wetter springs mean farmers can’t get equipment into fields and have to delay planting because of water-logged soils,” describes Susan Hodgson from the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture. The resulting dry spells, paired with increasingly higher temps, do a number on overall environmental conditions.

Though the challenges are daunting, David Patrick, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire says, “We can make a difference. In fact, the only difference we can ever make is through our individual actions.”

At each presentation he gives, he’s always prepared for the same question: “Is there hope?”

“As the father of two young children, I hope I can always answer in the affirmative,” he says.

The first step is doing everything we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. American households have an astronomical carbon footprint, so “when we change, we can have a disproportionate impact,” Patrick notes. Tightening up home insulation, investigating renewable energy, or considering an electric vehicle can all help lower human impacts.

Preparing for climate change’s inevitable effects and becoming more resilient are equally important measures. For instance, crop selection should involve a new approach. “In the past, you may have had your favorite tomato that you grew. You’re better off now having a range,” explains Patrick.

Another strategy is “selecting crops which are quick maturation so if farmers lose them, they have time to replant,” suggests Hodgson. She also suggests using a community supported agriculture (CSA) model “so that risk and benefits are more widely shared.”

Beyond questions of food production, all landowners can help by supporting pollinators. The National Wildlife Federation says, “Pollinators are in decline worldwide. Habitat loss, invasive species, parasites, and pesticides are largely to blame.” But this can be counteracted by planting/nurturing native plants, avoiding chemicals, and aiding in the preservation of America’s grasslands.

“Less than 2 percent of native grasslands in the United States remain intact, and climate change is further pressuring what grassland species remain,” says Dr. Hannah Birgé, Director of Water and Agriculture for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. The answer requires “connecting with people from across the country to help preserve our rare, remaining parcels of pristine land,” she says.

In every state, land stewardship has become especially critical to mitigate the extreme weather caused by climate change; so much comes down to water management. In the Midwest, it entails finding the most efficient methods of keeping crops hydrated.

“In our Central Nebraska Irrigation Project, for example, farmers saved an additional 0.55 acre inch per year relative to their neighbors by using new irrigation technology and training…In places where farmers irrigate ten inches per year across millions of acres, that adds up!” Birgé describes.

Farmers practice adapting to climate change. Woodland buffer along the edge of the farm, Flywheel Farm, Woodbury, VT. It’s a cover crop of oats which protects the soil through the fall and then dies in winter and can be planted right into in the spring. This practice protects the soil from erosion and runoff as a result of rain.

In the northeast, issues of runoff and erosion are at the forefront. Building healthy soil is one way to prepare for powerful precipitation. No or low-till methods support soil structure and keep critical organic matter locked in. Other traditional approaches, like cover cropping, which were “fringe practices in the past—they’re becoming a mainstay,” Patrick describes.

Creating buffers between sections of landscape can also alleviate damage from heavy rains. Woodland buffers connecting field and forest follow Mother Nature’s design, literally providing a buffer in areas where the landscape transitions. 

Experts agree that the traditional and technological must be combined in these uncertain times. Birgé notes: “Marrying the two can help us navigate the seemingly intractable problems brought about by climate change in agriculture.”

So as spring rolls in, launching a fresh season, look out over your land with this question in mind: How can I best steward this small piece of Earth? Because every backyard matters.

Radically Rural explores ways rural leaders are building stronger communities through innovative strategies. The column is produced by the organizers of Radically Rural, an annual summit of rural leaders that last year brought together almost 600 rural leaders from 25 states working in land and community, main street development, entrepreneurship, community journalism, arts and culture, and clean energy. For more information on Radically Rural, visit the organization’s website or contact them via email at 

Caroline Tremblay, M.Ed., is the founder of Owl & Pen, which provides content-development services to small businesses.

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