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Canoeing to the Carrots: A Wisconsin Farmer’s Lesson on Resilience and Creative Troubleshooting

Fri, 08/04/2017 - 9:04am -- Chelsea Chandler

I spend a lot of time thinking about how climate change impacts Wisconsin. And that’s not just because it’s part of my job directing the Climate & Energy program at the Academy. It’s also because when I’m not in the office, I run a produce farm in the Driftless Area, and I observe these impacts every day and live with the consequences.

The extreme weather this summer has been unrelenting. From flooding to tornadoes to extreme heat, this summer has been far from normal – unless it’s indicative of a “new normal” that is. The first half of 2017 was the second wettest on record in Wisconsin. Scientists project that our state will experience more frequent heavy precipitation events in the future.

My partner and I live on a farm located in northeast Lafayette County. It is a patchwork of fertile valley, wetland, prairie, and woods. In addition to providing a modest revenue stream and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables for our family, the farm is a living laboratory where we can convert our ideals into something tangible – restoring the health of the land and our community. We do this through land management techniques like doing controlled burns in our prairies and planting cover crops, powering our buildings with the solar system mounted on our barn roof, providing ample wildlife habitat, and growing organic fruits and vegetables for the 64 local families that subscribe to our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

The Mud Branch of the Pecatonica River separates the farm buildings from the produce fields. In our five years farming, we’ve observed that the stream has flooded about once or twice per year. However, it generally subsides enough by mid-day to cross the bridge and access our fields. Until recently, we had been lucky enough to have these flooding events fall during the early summer or on a day of the week that didn’t have a scheduled CSA delivery.

This year, we ran out of luck. On a Thursday in late June, the stream flooded and the bridge was underwater. We were able to pound in some t-posts to mark the edges of the bridge so we did not accidently drive off the edge and into the water, and carefully navigated the crossing in our farm truck to get out to the field and harvest the fresh produce we needed that day to meet our CSA and market commitments.

A different Thursday in late July proved much more challenging. We again awoke to a swollen stream and flooded bridge, but this was the worst we had ever seen it. Our normally 10-foot wide stream became a 100-foot wide flow of muddy water. After being hit by storm after storm, it seemed there was just nowhere for the water to go. The bridge was more than three feet underwater (as estimated by the tiny tips of the t-posts peeking above water) and we realized it would remain impassable for the rest of the day.

Part of the culture and concept built into the CSA model is that members take on both the risk and reward of farming. Extreme weather certainly poses many risks, but we had never had to cancel or postpone a delivery, and we wanted to avoid that option if at all possible. After running through our limited options, we decided on an unconventional harvest plan: loading up our crates in a canoe and paddling out to the field. It felt like a miracle that we pulled it off and made our deliveries on time. While we were proud of the creative troubleshooting and it was a fun adventure and good story to tell in retrospect, we don’t want harvesting by canoe to be our “new normal.”

Extreme and variable weather—such as this recent flooding, or in the form of extreme heat, early spring warming followed by a frost, drought, tornadoes, hail—can threaten public safety, damage important infrastructure and goods, and have huge economic consequences. In agriculture, too much moisture at the wrong time of year can delay planting, create conditions favorable for spreading disease, wash away seeds, and hinder transport of product. These extreme conditions do occur naturally, and it is therefore prudent to build as much resilience into farms, roads, and other infrastructure and systems as possible. However, the increasing frequency with which we’re experiencing these events is alarming.

While scientists rightly caution against conflating weather and climate or attributing particular weather events to climate change, there is high confidence in the trends expected in a warmer world. In Wisconsin, we anticipate more frequent and intense storms.

There is a connection, and while we will learn to adapt and become more resilient in facing this loaded atmospheric system, it is also logical to work towards lessening our contributions to climate change. Investments in technologies and practices that can decrease the amount of greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere—from solar panels and batteries to smart thermostats and soil carbon sequestration—can seem like a high price for a small farm. However, when assessing these costs, it is important to remember that the calculation is not the cost of investment compared to nothing. The reality is we are already paying for the impacts of climate change through agricultural profit losses and dealing with the ramifications of extreme weather. In addition to myriad other reasons to lessen our contributions to climate change, it makes economic sense to invest in solutions now rather than paying more later on when dealing with the consequences of inaction.

My story is just one of many that illustrate how extreme weather fueled by climate change can pose challenges to those trying to care for and make a living off the land. Many other Wisconsin residents are in the same boat (perhaps some, as in my experience, literally). Watching these impacts play out first-hand, I’m driven to seek solutions. I hope you and other land stewards will join me.

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Chelsea Chandler is the director of the Academy's Environmental Initiatives. She leads the Climate & Energy and Waters of Wisconsin Initiatives, to which she brings her interdisciplinary experience and passion for researching and communicating solutions to environmental challenges.

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