Diversifying farms to meet the challenges of climate change

Published: Mar. 1, 2023 at 4:23 PM EST
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SHELBURNE, Vt. (WCAX) - Apple picking in New England is a fall tradition, but like many crops, the changing climate and volatile weather brings its share of concerns. That’s why many growers are taking steps to diversify their operations.

Shelburne Orchard owner Nick Cowles has apples in his blood, with the orchard in his family for generations. And in that time have come other changes. “It’s gotten warmer. We don’t get the really cold winters,” Cowles said.

The proof, he says, isn’t in the apples, but in peaches. Typically, deep winter cold snaps would allow a peach crop once every few years. But in the last decade, the trees have had fruit more summers than not. With the climate changing, he wants to be ready. He can’t control the weather, but he can control the branches of his business. “By diversifying, anything we can do that brings income that does not depend on this year’s apple crop,” Cowles said.

Steadying income has meant adding cider and cider donuts, whole trees for sale, vinegar, pick your own, and a new brandy operation. “Anything we can do with cider is good. Brandy would fall into that, and donuts and vinegar,” Cowles said.

As he prepares for the future, experts say all weather-dependent agricultural operations should also look in that direction. “A farm’s plan for the year is more or less built upon what weather is expected,” said Joshua Faulkner, a research assistant professor with UVM Extension. He says farmers are more acutely aware of volatile weather than most because of their reliance on it and that that relationship will only get more complicated. “What is so challenging about climate change is that those typical expectations have to get thrown out the window.”

Faulkner says that means farms will have to adapt, including an increased reliance on hoop houses, irrigation, or developing better soil health. Or, in the case of Cowles, value-added products.

As Shelburne Orchard prepares for this growing season, Cowles says no matter how many apples they get, they will find a use for them. “I am always thinking about how I can use every part of that apple, you know, given crazy weather changes,” he said.