It’s a muggy late summer day at Freedom House Farm in Summerfield. They've decided to open early, and Stephen Farrell, the farm manager, takes his tractor out into the field.
Here, they grow fruits and vegetables, and their main crop is strawberries. Farrell says a lot goes into making it all work.
“The worse the weather — that first strawberry becomes more beautiful," he says. "You know that you made it through.”
Some berries like heat, Farrell says, but there’s a downside to what they’ve been seeing lately.
“The high temperatures can bring in more pests so the last couple of years we have seen more beetles, Japanese beetles, on the produce and the blackberries," says Farrell. "There is really not much you can do about that.”
Excessive rains can also negatively impact a crop, causing disease and fungus. One thing Farrell can do is to add moisture if needed. He says they installed a drip irrigation system to help during the growing seasons.
“There’s maybe one percent of everything we do out here and all of the hours that we are working, and the sweat and the labor that you can actually control," he says. "So I think you just have to be able to be flexible with whatever weather change that is.”
Guilford County Cooperative Extension Agent Ben Grandon says many farmers are opting for crop insurance or rotating crops to protect their profitability window. But things are still hard to predict. For example, 2021 was a record-breaking year for corn in Guilford County, but this year, he says that probably won’t be the case.
“The storms come through the county but it seems like one block it’s raining really hard and you go a quarter mile away and it's bone dry,” says Grandon. "So it hasn’t been consistent rains as far as overall coverage leading to struggles getting the crops up and really getting to that full maturity and full vigor.”
While some farmers say extreme weather in farming has always been an issue, researchers at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University say these types of weather conditions have become more common in the state.
Biswanath Dari, agriculture and extension specialist with N.C. A&T, says you have to look at both weather patterns — which are short-term — and climate, which is long-term.
“The sad news is [the] climate is actually changing over a decade and long term the climate is changing in North Carolina," says Dari. "In terms of sea level rise, storms, hurricanes, excessive flooding, extreme rainfall, more hotter night, and the hot temperature in the daytime. These are all of the outcomes of climate change."
Dari says this has a direct impact on agriculture. That’s why experts think more technologies and practices that are tailored to the farming operation are needed. N.C. A&T focuses on helping small limited resource and minority farmers find ways to thrive and meet challenges, which is important because small-scale farms are a large part of the state’s industry.
The university partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund to do case studies on three farms in North Carolina. They looked at what strategies made financial and environmental sense. Three top solutions emerged: high tunnels, which are greenhouse-like structures without a heater that can extend the growing season; cover crops, or plants that are grown but not sold that help with drainage and soil quality; and lastly, reduced tillage of farmland. Dari says all of these are important for building resilience to climate change.
“Everything will actually improve your long-term soil health," says Dari. "So to combat the climate change you don’t just have to think about your crop yield or farm income. You have to think about your environment as well."
There are other climate studies being done on N.C. A&T’s nearly 500-acre research farm. One of the goals is to find new varieties of fruit trees and plants that can better withstand warmer winters. Researchers are also looking at climate impact on livestock.
Regardless of the findings, it’s agreed that updates and changes to farming will require more investment at a time when farmers are already experiencing some limited resources.
Across Guilford County in Gibsonville, Edward Apple of Apple Farms is arranging produce crates for his farmer’s market stand.
He’s been in the industry for nearly 30 years. Farming runs in his blood going back to his great-grandfather. And it’s all of that experience he says that will help him weather future storms.
"Coming to the farm, being a farmer, that’s what I do," he says. "And if it’s a good day, it’s a bad day, it doesn’t really matter. I will be back tomorrow."
Apple says he’s doing his best through investments in his land to make sure his farm is productive and healthy, and part of the community into the next generation.
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