Shelburne Farms practices resilience as climate changes

I’m guessing you’ve noticed that our weather is different from decades past. Last summer? Horrors. This winter? Crushing for those who enjoy or are in the business of winter sports and recreation. December? Devastating for locations flooded once or twice in 2023.

In response, resilience is a word we often hear. Some towns in Vermont fared better than expected last July because of rebuilding decisions made after Hurricane Irene in 2011. That’s resilience.

Since my wheelhouse is the natural world, not culverts or houses moved from floodplains, I’m looking at ways to adapt and be resilient in the nonbuilt environment. Shelburne Farms’ mission statement includes this: inspire and cultivate learning for a sustainable future. Shelburne Farms is walking the walk.

At the Market Garden, which supplies food to the Inn and beyond, Josh Carter says, “When growing outdoors, you are subject to the will of Mother Nature.”

Carter is adapting in three major ways: improving soil health, growing more crops under the protection of tunnels (unheated hoop structures with plastic cover) and growing a diversity of crops over the entire season.

Gardeners till the soil shallower and less frequently. When not growing cash crops, they plant cover crops of winter rye, hairy vetch, clover, ryegrass, buckwheat and oats. Farm-made compost improves the soil’s fertility, biology and structure. They rotate crops to prevent build-up of pests and diseases. It takes some planning, but these are all things we can do at home.

While tunnels offer more control and extend the growing season, they cost money and offer challenges that may not tempt a home gardener.

“We sow successions of many crops like beets, carrots, lettuce, kale, cucumbers, zucchini, beans,” Carter say. “This gives us better odds of being successful when the climate does not provide the best growing conditions. If one crop does not do well, like seeding carrots before a hot dry spell in July, another crop may be thriving under these conditions, like tomatoes and watermelons.”

Dairy manager Sam Dixon said, “Two or three years ago, I changed my thinking about how to do my job. We used to schedule work based on seasonal patterns or traditions. I realized that wasn’t doable anymore. Things were too unpredictable.”

The 2023 season was a good example of that.

“The first cut of hay used to happen around Memorial Day,” Dixon said. “But all our equipment was ready on May 11, and the grass was, too. We made 1,300 bales of nice hay by the first of June, before it started raining. Every farmer who waited got caught and couldn’t make hay.”

The challenges of 2023 continued.

“Normally, you don’t spread a lot of manure in April. You wait until after the first cut.  But in 2023, April was really dry,” Dixon said. He spread some manure early and felt lucky because the summer was so wet. It became impossible to get into the saturated fields, and the manure pits would have been overflowing.

Dixon summarizes: plan, watch the weather and respond quickly when conditions are right.

Shelburne Farms woodlands manager Dana Bishop said, “A lot of our trees are resilient to various weather events because they’re native. They’ve been here for a long time and they’ve been through it.”

Over a long lifetime, trees endure droughts, early and late frosts, and wet feet. But multiple stresses, like drought or non-stop rain combined with disease or pests, can be costly.

“A lot of our forest stands are very mature and have a closed canopy, so there’s not much sunlight on the forest floor,” Bishop said.

There are not many pole-sized oaks and hickories ready to take over at Shelburne Farms. Currently, oaks and hickories are among the most resilient and climate-adaptive native species.

With warmer winters, foresters need to be ready early for sugaring.

“If you tap early, the tap holes will start closing in six to eight weeks, so you’ll get less sap flow later in the season,” Bishop said. “That early schedule also means we have to rethink the seasonality of our jobs. Typically, we are cutting firewood and doing stand work in December or January, not sugaring.

“My job marches with the seasons and those seasons are changing. We haven’t quite changed our march yet.”

Of course, it’s not just Shelburne Farms that is thinking of climate resiliency. Wild Seed, a Maine non-profit educating and providing native seeds and plants, has a new 2024 publication, Planting for Climate Resilience in Northeast Landscapes.

From Wild Seed: “Our 2024 guide celebrates the adaptive capacity of plants, which, when returned to the places where they once thrived, support resilient communities of diverse life. We may not be able to garden our way out of the climate crisis, but what we do at home matters.”