As most everyone in the northeast is aware, 2016 was a year of exceptional drought for the region. Even today, sitting under several feet of snow in mid-February, our part of the state is still classified in a “severe” drought category. As anyone who has ever even dabbled in farming will be well aware, a drought is just one of many factors that can drastically influence the outcomes for a farm - and like many of these factors, drought is one of those circumstances that can ruin a harvest despite a farmer’s best efforts and planning. I’ve been curious to talk to Luke and Catarina about the drought we’ve been experiencing, and now that we’re well into winter and things on the farm are slower than in the thick of summer, we finally had a chance. It was a sobering conversation, and one that I thought important to share with other Brookford customers.
In many ways, Brookford was well prepared for the drought, although it’s next to impossible to ever be fully prepared for such drastic circumstances. Since moving to the Canterbury land, Luke and Catarina have worked diligently to improve the irrigation systems for the fields. This irrigation system was both a saving grace and a cause of many headaches as the drought developed. As the nearby river dried up, the dropping water levels caused the system’s pump to break and need replacement. The pump was replaced only to promptly break again and yet again as water levels continued to drop. Luke tells me that a silver lining to this frustration is that the constant irrigation system challenges left the farm with little choice but to continue to develop and refine the systems, which means that as we head into another potential spring and summer of drought, the farm is now even better prepared.
One of the challenges of sudden infrastructure demands such as irrigation equipment is that it funnels resources away from other parts of the farm. Not addressing issues with the irrigation system could mean crop failure and a huge loss of income, yet updating and maintaining these systems is also expensive. Along with these direct challenges and costs, a drought brings myriad secondary effects. While the farm’s organic farming methods include such safeguards as crop rotation to address weed and pest life cycles, a drought is particularly hard on cultivated plants. Weeds have an advantage over crops because weeds are native to the land, which helps them better adapt to their surroundings. The same goes for pests, which know how to survive - thrive even - in times of drought. As weeds and pests descend upon drought stressed crops, the plants become more susceptible to disease and scar tissue. These factors increase the risk of crop failure as well as rising the labor demands for the farm.
For Brookford, these effects played out most dramatically for the potato crop, with both quantity and quality severely impacted. Luckily for CSA customers, Brookford has a large wholesale business, which serves as a buffer for the vegetable shares. The farm is able to route crop failures or near failures through the wholesale portion of the business, directing the best of limited quantities directly to CSA customers. Still, this past season’s drought was severe enough that after giving out the best of the potatoes through CSA shares, the farm did not have enough to supply to customers over the course of the winter in fall/winter veggie shares. With potatoes being a staple crop for seasonal eating during cold months, the farm chose to purchase organic potatoes from another farm in order to ensure that CSA customers would be provided with the quality and quantity they’ve come to depend upon.
Unfortunately, potatoes weren’t the only crops impacted in this way. The lack of rain meant that the quantity of hay harvested throughout the season was not sufficient to get the farm through this winter, making it necessary for the farm to buy $40k worth of hay to sustain the animals. In addition to these large scale crop issues, the drought meant challenges for crops on a smaller scale, as well. In hot dry weather, delicate crops such a lettuce tend to bolt and become bitter, often rendering them unusable. Once again, having the buffer of wholesale means that CSA customers are insulated from the worst effects of these troubles, but for a farmer, the combination of increased equipment and labor needs, failed crops, and a decrease in products to sell to the wholesale market can make for a stressful season.
These hurdles, although frustrating, aren’t unexpected; seasoned farmers know that nature and weather will always be unpredictable. I asked Luke and Catarina how they keep spirits up during challenging times like this. I was heartened to hear them tell me that despite this past summer’s difficulties, the season also brought some of the best Friday evenings in the farm’s history. The weeks would draw to a close over beer and barbecue, and probably some shared exhaustion. Both Catarina and Luke are committed to an environment that focuses on relationship building, communication, and being understanding of the mistakes that come with learning and growth.
As a long-time customer, I’m pretty hard-core in my passion for supporting my local farm. I remember several years ago, hearing Luke talk about how the food produced by the farm is really just an edible by-product of nurturing the land. This philosophy is part of why I am not only devoted to supporting local farms, but to supporting Brookford Farm specifically. I view my role as a customer in similar fashion. I give the farm my financial support, and the food I receive in return is a delicious by-product of that support. But regardless of the outcome, regardless of the by-products, the farm would still have my support. Because family farms - especially diversified, organic farms like Brookford - make a difference. Supporting these farms means supporting local jobs and the local economy. It means protecting open space and preserving our state’s agricultural heritage. Support for Brookford means less pollution, fewer chemicals, and decreased use of pesticides, and these things mean cleaner air and water right here at home. Support for Brookford also means protecting heirloom vegetables, non GMO seeds, and biodiversity for the future. These are all things that I would support regardless of whether I were to receive food in return. Clean air and water, open space, our local economy, biodiversity...these are all things that I’m invested in protecting not only for my own quality of life, but for my children’s quality of life, and the quality of life for others in our community.
It is because of this steadfast belief in the importance of local farms that I feel tremendous compassion and gratitude when I talk with Luke and Catarina about the implications of the drought. Without a doubt, the drought has been a challenge for most of us throughout the state. But I can’t think of many others as directly affected as our hard working organic farms. I am so grateful that we have dedicated farmers who are willing to shoulder the stress and burden of nature’s unpredictability so that we all can benefit. Undoubtedly, customers may have noticed that shares were impacted by the extreme conditions of this past summer. But for many of us customers, we are also supporters - and in that role, I’m so appreciative of the quiet heroism and selflessness of the farmers who absorb the brunt of the cost when nature doesn’t cooperate.
As I sit here writing on this February morning, I have a freezer stocked full of organic frozen tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, peppers, corn, and cauliflower. The carefully vacuum sealed packets offer a pop of color every time I open the freezer - vibrant red, lush green, soft yellow. It makes me smile to see summer frozen in time in this way. I feel incredibly thankful for a farm that knows their customers might just need a little color in the wintertime, and thus invests the time and resources to make it so. And so despite it all - despite the water pump and the pests, despite the weeds and the long hours on hot, dry days, I will make a locally sourced summer ragout for dinner this evening. We will eat it and celebrate seasons past, seasons to come, and all of the dedication, love, and effort that persevered.