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  • Grace Oedel

Support Farmers Now for a Climate-Resilient Future

 By Grace Oedel


Despite Vermont’s reputation as a climate haven, the climate crisis is here. Increasingly erratic and extreme weather, including large storms, droughts, and flooding events like those we’ve seen over the last month, affect farms' viability and food security. According to the 2021 Vermont Climate Assessment, Vermont’s precipitation has increased a whopping 21% since 1900. This recent flooding and the relentlessly wet season are not unprecedented or unique. At the same time, we must prepare for an influx of people moving for a more habitable climate since other areas of the country are experiencing even more significant impacts. According to a recent ProPublica study, six out of ten of the best zip codes to live in during this time of climate change are in Vermont. How we respond to July’s flood, its fallout, and rebuilding efforts while simultaneously preparing for a growing population will serve as the foundation for our resilience plan for the future.


It's time to pull on every lever we can to reduce the harm from climate change’s worst effects while working beyond mitigation for a truly transformative, holistic vision of a thriving future. To (re)build well, we need a collective sense of what might be possible to keep our growing communities supported and our land healthy. 


In my vision of a thriving future, all Vermonters are fed and nourished despite strange weather conditions. Take a minute to imagine with me: We support organic farmers who invest time and resources in growing healthy, living soil that helps slow, spread, and absorb water like a sponge. Healthy soil means that runoff is minimal and clean even after a storm. Farmers have enough economic leeway to make the best possible choices of how to tend the land in ways that benefit us all by sequestering carbon, ensuring clean water, and enhancing biodiversity, all while providing healthy foods for our communities and removing harmful chemicals from the water system. When storms occur, we practice collaboration and resource-sharing so well that farms remain viable through turbulence. Farmers and farmworkers make enough money to send their children to high-quality childcare and don’t worry about unexpected medical needs throwing them into deep debt. Young people see farming as a viable career choice and want to stay in-state to do it. All Vermont kids eat organic and local food in their schools and are nourished and thriving, regardless of economic status. Lake Champlain and other waterways in Vermont have fewer and fewer algal blooms, and we are no longer limited on when we can swim safely. Eco- and agri-tourism thrive. Our sense of connection, both to each other and our place, is stronger than ever. The identity of Vermont as a beacon of natural beauty continues to shine. 


The seeds of this vision are already planted, and as we rebuild from flooding, we choose what to tend to. Ensuring that small, diversified, and organic farms remain viable and are centered in the climate conversation is an imperative step toward realizing this thriving future. 


Unfortunately, current policy and funding structures are leaving the farmers we need far from supported in the rebuild. Farmers are treated differently than all other businesses and excluded from FEMA relief, and USDA programs are primarily designed for mega-scale farms (and more have yet to kick in). Vermont’s climate goals are woefully quiet on how farming can be a viable solution to climate change. We can and must do better.

 

In a time when all ecosystems are under unprecedented threat, small-scale organic farming allows us to feed ourselves in a way that nurtures and regenerates the land. A robust and locally-rooted farm economy helps us build human resilience in unpredictable times, centering relationships and community rather than corporate profits that suck resources out of our state. Buying from local foodsheds doesn’t just mean we burn less diesel, getting food to our plates. It means that we are part of the same community as those who grow our food and are tending the networks of mutual care and support that we can turn to in times of disaster. On a federal level, policies must shift from supporting corporate agri-businesses that consolidate money and power at the expense of people and our planet to policies that incentivize good land stewardship, climate mitigation strategies, and community resilience.


Despite the challenges of this last month, I see many signs of hope and promise, north stars to chart towards. Thousands of individuals gave generously to NOFA-VT’s Farmer Emergency Fund following July’s historic flooding – money that we turn 100% of right back around to support the farmers our future needs. We’ve had overwhelming volunteer offers to help with cleanup efforts. Elderly community members have regularly baked cookies for the farmworkers cleaning up in my neck of the woods. We are building our muscles of connection and mutuality in thousands of small interactions of care across the state. Let’s keep it up. 


These short-term mitigation strategies are absolutely crucial to ensuring that farms can weather literal storms. But what can we do together to move towards a livable future after donating, volunteering, and continuing to shop locally (if our situation allows)? 


Transformation won’t happen all at once but rather through a mix of policy-level, community-scale, and individual steps that will shift the gears of business as usual. There are so many joyful (and needed!) roles to play in creating a livable future: Get to know your neighbors (including those who grow your food) to build the relationships that will ultimately keep us safer in times of crisis. (You can join us at a NOFA pizza social on farms all over the state!) Plant trees and native perennials along your roads or sidewalk strips outside your kids’ schools. Grill food at your block party that was grown in your backyard or from a local organic farm. Ask the institutions you frequent to choose local and organic farms, and thank them with your business when they do. Ask your legislators to invest in programs that support local farmers and incentivize organic, ecological practices by pushing for more federal and state flood relief to small and medium diversified farms, sensible Farm Bill priorities. We are all collaborators for a livable future. 


A resilient future relies on small-scale, diversified, organic farmers and farmworkers who can be seen as a keystone indicator. If they are flourishing, we all are flourishing.  Let’s center these land-tenders in the flooding rebuild to ensure a thriving, nourished, and climate-resilient future. 


Grace Oedel is the Executive Director of NOFA-VT.

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