Questions and Answers: After a rainy, then dry year, Brattleboro’s Rebop Farm adapts to climate change

A calf is born in torrential rain in 2021. Photo courtesy of Ashlyn Bristle

Scientists predict more rain will fall in Vermont due to climate change, but they also expect more frequent periods of drought.

The rain fell in bursts, which increases the likelihood of water leaking out of the landscape, instead of penetrating the ground, replenishing the ecosystem.

This pattern has already begun to manifest itself. Last summer, rain engulfed the southern half of the state as northern Vermont remained dry. The US Drought Monitor defined drought conditions in the southeastern corner of the state this month as “severe drought,” which also appeared in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and other parts of New England.

It’s a relatively localized problem: Water levels in Lake Champlain have only dropped about half a foot from average, a marked improvement from late last summer, according to Oliver Pierson, director of the lake and pond at the Agency for Water. natural resources program.

Roger Hill, a Worcester-based meteorologist, said this week’s rain will likely help quell persistent drought conditions across much of the state.

But conditions are likely to continue to fluctuate as climate change advances, and extreme weather conditions are becoming more common. Farmers are a group particularly affected by this fluctuation.

On a hill in Brattleboro, first generation farmers Ashlyn Bristle and Abraham McClurg manage nearly 70 acres of pasture and forest where they tend a herd of Jersey cows, sheep and pigs, selling raw milk and meat. From a retail store on the property of their Rebop Farm, they offer their own products and those of 90 other producers in the area.

Last year, the farm was subjected to extreme rain and humidity conditions. This year, their fields were set on fire in April due to the drought. Bristles spoke to VTDigger about how the farm, which they have been running since 2014, has adapted.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Abraham McClurg and Ashlyn Bristle, the owners of Rebop Farm in Brattleboro. Photo courtesy of Ashlyn Bristles

VTDigger: When did you start feeling the dry weather this year?

Ashlyn Bristle: I think we actually started noticing this in April, which is quite early in the season. We usually see the latest snow then, but all winter we have had less snow than we normally would.

I use a weed fabric that I burn holes through, which is great for a no-till application, and my cover crop was so dry underneath it caught fire. Fortunately, it didn’t spread much, but it was the first in April, which is usually very rainy.

VTD: How did the unusual conditions affect the farm this year?

Ashlyn bristles: I don’t know if this was the case in the rest of Vermont, but in the southern part of the state we had very cold temperatures until April, despite being dry. In May, we hit about 90 degree days very suddenly. In herbaceous species, you want about 20% of everything you are grazing to go to seed and the rest to be vegetative to have good nutrition for your animals, especially dairy cows, because metabolically, like, they all run a marathon. the days. That heat, coupled with that stress, meant everything was going to seed very soon. So if you looked at the hay fields, people had to mow first.

We haven’t done our forage analysis yet, but we’re pretty worried it will be of lower quality because you get more starch and less digestible, good food for your animals all winter long.

It started happening in May, and then in June we rained so little that we started seeing parts of our pasture go dormant and brown, which is very unusual for June. It’s usually our luscious month with good growth – you feel like you have more weed than you know what to do with. But this year, that’s when we got everyone out of the pasture and started feeding the stored hay we would usually have saved.

Drought conditions in the sheep pastures of the Rebop farm. Photo courtesy of Ashlyn Bristles

VTD: What happens when you run through your hay in the summer, when you are trying to save it for the winter? Is it expensive to buy?

Ashlyn Bristle: It’s really expensive. We were really lucky to have built a new barn in 2021 which has radically reduced our hay waste thanks to the new systems we have implemented. Our hay budget was usually 300 wrapped bales per year and we only used 150 during the winter. We thought we had saved a lot of money, but we fed almost all of it, almost as much in the summer as in the winter, which is the first time.

We think we will be able to find enough resources for the coming winter. We have rained a bit here at the end of the season, so we’ll see what the second cut will be like. We hope we have been very lucky indeed. Our luck was like lightning.

I think this really speaks to the need for a buffer capacity. In a new climate reality, how much money can you spend on “extras”, just in case, like extra space, extra energy, extra nutrition? It’s a veiled way of saying, how much financial privilege do you have to give your farm in the “just in case” of your budget?

VTD: I guess this adds to other financial pressures from being young and farming.

Ashlyn Bristle: I’m in my 30s and my husband is in my 40s. I think, being first-generation farmers, you carry more debt than a multigenerational farm that has had the option of paying the mortgage or paying for equipment and moving it. There are just more costs coming up after you. Although I don’t want to speak for multi-generation farmers, because they also have several stressors that I’m happy I don’t have to bring.

VTD: Is this the first time you have been hit by extreme weather conditions?

Ashlyn Bristle: We had similar drought conditions in 2020. It broke a little earlier – we ended up raining more in July. 2021 was also a truly exceptional year. We had an incredible amount of rain in July – the average rainfall in Vermont for our area is about three inches. We have 24 (inches that month).

That summer, in 2021, we had multiple cases of toxic mastitis in our cows, which can be fatal within 12-24 hours if you don’t catch it quickly and treat it. It’s very, very unpleasant for them, and it was so expensive. It was so hard to see these animals we love and care for – dairy cows are my friends. I don’t want them to feel that way, ever. I care a lot about them and their quality of life, and it seemed preventable.

I found out it’s a wet thing. You often see this on cows that have just given birth. We have grazed them and if someone decides to lie down with their udder in a puddle during the night, they can contract it. It is very, very painful and toxic. We have vaccinated ourselves against it, but sometimes the conditions are bad enough.

VTD: How have you adapted to these weather fluctuations?

Ashlyn Bristle: Last year it was all over the map, and that was one of the reasons why we decided to take the barn project forward so that we have a safe space regardless of the outside weather. With this, we have built many systems to help it stay drier or cooler, or whatever the animals needed to be healthy and productive.

As a pasture farm, we hadn’t invested so aggressively in infrastructure that could be used all year round like that. We always had winter housing, but our animals were out 100% of the time.

So this was the impetus for our realization that every system must have a buffer capacity; every system must be able to contain all our animals. That’s a huge number of animals in the summer. We are sitting on 100 sheep right now. We raised 80 pigs during the year: 2,000 chickens, we will be 15 cows by next spring. Getting them all in somewhere on a small hillside farm is a big deal. This year it was the other way around. It was so, so dry, that they needed to be under the fans due to the heat stress.

Cows and sheep lie in Rebop Farm’s new barn, which was built, in part, to shelter the animals from the most extreme weather fluctuations. Photo courtesy of Ashlyn Bristles.

VTD: How much did the barn represent a financial burden?

Ashlyn Bristle: The barn project was probably half our operating budget since the year we built it. It was, indeed, a huge investment on the farm. But we have realized that we cannot go on the way we are going.

VTD: What is it like to be a farmer in the farthest corners of the state when going through difficult times like this? Do you have the support you need?

Ashlyn Bristle: I think I’m in my 13th year of farming in total, and I feel like I’ve just moved on to feeling like I know what to do and how to handle new situations, because I have enough experience behind me.

One of the biggest difficulties I had, in general, was accessing good technical support: being able to afford and have the time to go to workshops or get in touch with technical support providers. These services tend to be very concentrated in the northern part of the state which is understandable, there are a lot more farms there. We have access to truly exceptional support from various organizations in the state, such as the Northeast Organic Farming Association and the Farm and Forest Viability Program. But there is still a lot more activity in the north.

VTD: There is rain in the forecast for this week. Do you feel confident?

Ashlyn Bristle: We had a couple of nice torrential rains, so we were able to start grazing again, which felt like: it’s hard to describe the feeling of seeing the animals outside. They don’t want to stay inside, they don’t want to eat the old hay. Seeing them happy and having the food they really want is wonderful.

A drought can be really hard on your mental health as a farmer. You can be incredibly skilled, you can plan very well. I think being a good farmer means being very responsive and alert and, at some point, there’s just nothing you can do about it. That feeling of helplessness is really hard to manage.

I think I need to adjust my expectations for the future on what a successful season is and how to prepare for it. Climate change is a lot here. It is hitting us. I think success is like resilience, doing the best we can to be prepared and turn quickly.

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