Can family farms survive climate change? These North Carolina farmers say yes.
Climate-smart techniques can make small farms more profitable and better able to withstand extreme weather.
“We’ve been harvesting these since June, and they just keep on coming,” Connie Locklear says as she ducks under a translucent canopy that shelters five varieties of heirloom tomatoes. A broad smile spreads across her face as she surveys the bounty of red, yellow and purple fruit. “Back when we planted them in the field we’d only get four weeks, if we were lucky.”
For Connie and her husband Millard, high tunnels, the greenhouse-type structures that cover their heirloom tomatoes, have extended their growing season.
The tunnels provide shelter against extreme precipitation and temperature — hallmarks of climate change — and make it easier to notice and contain insect damage.
“We were losing 40% of our tomatoes in the fields, but now 99% of them are sellable,” says Connie.
A single high tunnel, which cost the Locklears $3,000 to purchase used, produces an extra $8,000 in revenue each year. “That’s one heck of a boost to the bottom line,” Connie says.
Global farming productivity is 21% lower than it could have been without climate change. Small farmers are particularly vulnerable to increasingly frequent extreme weather events, including floods, droughts and heat waves.
“Farmers’ trials and errors, and their successes, are essential to building a knowledge base that will enable more farmers to thrive in a changing climate,” says Vincent Gauthier of Environmental Defense Fund's Climate Smart Agriculture team.
EDF and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University have studied the financial impacts of climate-smart practices on innovative small farms like the Locklears’.
The results, says Gauthier, can inform efforts to scale up such practices in North Carolina — where agriculture and agribusiness contribute more than $90 billion to the economy each year — and beyond.
EDF will also make the data available to the farm finance industry, to encourage lenders to build sustainability practices into assessments when considering the terms of farm loans.
Farming to withstand extreme weather
After retiring from a corporate career, Beverly Bowen returned to her family’s defunct 60-acre farm in 2016 with the goal of revitalizing it. Blackwell’s Farm is an oasis of dark-brown earth and emerald grass amid the red clay hills of North Carolina’s Piedmont region.
She realized early on that she would need to update her ancestors’ approach to farming.
“Growing up, I was always taught that you had to turn the soil,” she says, as she lays out a bale of fresh hay that quickly draws a dozen black Angus cattle. “But the old folks didn’t have all this extreme weather tearing away at the soil. If this farm was going to survive, I needed to find a better way.”
With the support of her brother Seth Blackwell, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension and other organizations, Bowen began experimenting with techniques to improve soil health and overall sustainability.
Cover crops and flash-grazing
Instead of disturbing the land and reducing fertility by conventional tilling, she now plants cover crops such as grains, daikon radish, or kale. The plants help to break up compacted earth, improve water infiltration, aid uptake of nutrients and suppress weeds and pests.
Bowen also planted milkweed and other pollinator friendly plants and preserved wooded areas for wildlife. She rotates her small herd in complex patterns through pastures, often ‘flash-grazing’ for short periods to preserve the tender rye grass and avoid soil compaction.
“Early on, I sometimes doubted myself because other farmers were telling me I was wasting my money. I have a son who studied agriculture and animal science, and he said, ‘Momma, I’m only seeing dollars being put into it. When are you going to reap the benefits?’”
“Five years later, my son says now he sees the benefits. He notices that there’s less storm runoff going into the pond, and the no-till approach has reduced my fertilizer bills by 30%. I’ve cut the number of passes I’m making with the tractor, which reduces fuel costs and greenhouse gases.”
Bowen says she’d like to teach other farmers how to make their farms more profitable and resilient. “If you don’t stay on top of the changes, you’re going to be out of the farm business,” she says.
A journey to heal the land
In North Carolina’s mountainous northwest, Against the Grain farm produces certified organic and biodynamic vegetables and Animal Welfare Approved Meats on 35 acres of pastures, croplands and woodlots.
“Up here it’s all about microclimates,” says Holly Whitesides, who owns and operates the farm with her husband, Andy Bryant. “Which fields get the early frost, which tend to stay wet in the spring, which dry out faster. That encourages the farmer to know the farm intimately. It’s like being in a relationship, because it’s always changing.”
The couple purchased their farm in 2012 to realize their dream of growing food for the local community and supporting their family, which now includes three children.
“We just pulled up and said, ‘Oh, this is home,’” Whitesides remembers. “It was totally a heart decision. Then we realized there was no topsoil. Extractive farming and erosion had left the land barren. I remember thinking, wow, we are really setting out on a journey of healing the land.”
Building healthy soils
Against the Grain’s strategy includes intensive composting, controlled grazing and innovative techniques such as keyline plowing — using a special plow that cuts deep furrows without turning over the soil. The furrows direct fast-moving rainwater away from vegetable fields and help to build sponge-like soil that holds moisture for plants during dry times.
“As time goes on, we see that the downpours are getting heavier, but our land is getting better at handling them, holding in nutrients and keeping them from washing downstream,” Whitesides says.
Farming is already a challenging business, and experimenting with new techniques — particularly on a small farm — is risky.
“As a farmer, I really hope we can manage this big transition [to climate-resilient farming],” says Whitesides. “Because without farms, it’s going to be hard for everyone to eat.”
This article appears in the Winter 2022 edition of EDF’s Solutions magazine. Join EDF and receive the magazine for free!