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2023 – A Challenging and Inspiring Growing Season

Dec 1, 2023 | Agriculture, Buying Local, Support for Local Farmers, Sustainability | 0 comments

Farmers are the first to notice changes in the environment. They work the land year after year, using their knowledge and skills to work alongside weather, considering the trends that have come in the seasons and cycles of past years. As the climate changes, they are the first to feel it and respond to it. 2023 was an exceptional year, deviating from many climate norms and forcing farmers to adapt. I interviewed two local farms to see how this wonky 2023 growing season worked for them.

 

 

Tyler Gray Blair is the range manager at Tussock Sedge Farm, a pasture based regenerative farm in Perkasie. They raise grass fed and pasture raised livestock including beef, lamb, pork, and chicken. You can learn more about their farming practices in this short video, produced by BCFA.

 

 

 

Malaika Spencer and Breezy Mehringer are the farmers at Roots to River Farm, a regenerative and organic vegetable farm in New Hope. They grow over 70 different varieties of vegetables on their 6 acres of land.

 

 

 

Malaika sums up the weird season: “2023 was a season of extremes [it started with] a rare drought in the spring turned to constant rain in the summer to an extremely warm and long fall.”

“Weather is always a variable that any farmer has to do their best to navigate and predict to the best of their ability with their past experiences and with the current information they have but I feel like that’s more difficult now than ever,” explains Blair, “you used to be able to have a rough idea of what to expect in a certain season and now it just seems all over the place – very difficult to plan. The Hopi Indians had a word called ‘koyaanisqatsi’ which meant life out of balance. I think we are starting to see and feel what the definition of that word really means.”

 

Unseasonable Spring Drought

Farmers at Roots to River cover rows in spring

We all know the adage: April showers bring May flowers. But not this year. March, April, May, and June all had below average rainfall – leading to drought. This had some major impacts over at Tussock Sedge Farm. Blair explains the “drought in the spring made our first hay harvest yield about half the yields we were expecting.” This situation can be dire for livestock farmers as all the hay grown in the spring and summer is used to feed the animals through the winter. Not enough hay means they need to purchase hay, which is expensive.

Blair continues, “the drought also affected the grazing pastures and made them less plentiful in the spring than normal. We had to adjust our grazing style in order to not put us behind for the rest of the grazing season, meaning giving bigger sections and moving the cattle along faster than normal” to avoid the grasses going into shock from lack of precipitation and overgrazing.

Meanwhile, at Roots to River, the dry spring was unlike anything they had experienced in their 10 years of farming in New Hope: “we had to irrigate earlier in the season than ever before,” says Spencer, “Irrigation usually begins in mid-summer, never before in the spring. The farm was irrigating and covering crops to prevent frost damage, it was unheard of.”

 

Wildfire Smoke in Early Summer

The wildfire smoke at Spring Creek Farm

June brought hazardous levels of particulate matter in the air from the out of control wildfires in Canada. Everyone was urged to stay indoors but of course farmers had to keep working despite the warnings. Spencer explains, “navigating smoke from wildfires while also working in high temperatures in the middle of the summer is a new challenge to manage on the farm and probably for all outdoor workers. On the farm we don’t have the time to take the day off or work indoors in the middle of the season, so we try to work in the cooler mornings and we wear masks when the smoke is particularly bad.”

Blair recalls, “I would see the wildlife bedded down uncharacteristically in the afternoon. Deer laying in the field, hawks sitting on fence posts as if not knowing what time of day it was or how to handle their new strange environment. The cattle, when the smoke was heavy and thick in the air, would just bed down and stop grazing. It was a very strange experience.”

 

A Rainy Summer

Tussock Sedge Farm in summer

As a balance to the dry spring, unusual intense rain storm events struck all summer long. This was good news for Tussock Sedge Farm. Blair exclaims, “we had a bumper crop for second cutting where some of the fields produced higher yield for second cutting than they did for first cutting which I have never seen before.” Thankfully, the odd bumper second cutting will be enough to get them through this winter.

Meanwhile, vegetable farmers had enough of the rain. The intense and frequent rain storms caused “flooded fields and increased disease pressure” at Roots to River Farm. From splitting tomatoes to weeds to disease, excessive rain made vegetable farming extra challenging.

 

Hot, Hot Hot September and a Long Fall

Roots to River vegetables

September usually brings more mild temperatures but not this year. An uncharacteristic heat wave swept the area in September, forcing workers out in the heat instead of giving them a cooler respite.

The long and warm fall was a boon at Roots to River, “the warm, extended fall gave us some of the highest yields we’ve ever had from our fall crops and we now have so many storage crops that we will be able to attend the Wrightstown Winter Market this season even though we didn’t crop plan for it.” Yay! (make sure to see them at Wrightstown Farmers Winter Market, open 2nd and 4th Saturdays).

 

Looking ahead

Tussock Sedge Farm

2023 demonstrated that strange weather patterns may occur but our farmers are ready to adapt and cope with whatever comes. Despite the challenges, the community comes together to help. “We had a wonderful farm crew and some amazing volunteers that came to help out at the farm. It was an honor to have the community show up for us when we most needed it. We still love growing vegetables even with the challenges that come with farming,” explains Spencer.

“As we continue forward, we have to do our best to farm with nature to try to coexist with the existing ecosystems and help our farming practices be a symbiotic relationship with the wild kingdom that surrounds us,” says Blair.

Spencer concludes, “Farms and farm workers are on the front lines of the effects of climate change and it will make it harder to produce food both on a local and global scale. As a region, working hard to support local food producers and small businesses will make us more resilient to the challenges that will come with climate change. Plus supporting local food producers means you get to eat more delicious food!”

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