For much of the U.S. (and world) it’s already been a blisteringly hot summer shattering global temperature highs and putting millions of people at risk. In contrast, in some areas including New England and Alaska, farmers and growers have faced significant rain and flooding.
Small and mid-sized farmers are on the front lines of climate change. As weather disasters continue to worsen, corporate agribusiness increasingly controls farming, and the rural landscape is dominated by large-scale operations, many challenges face small farmers who are employing regenerative and climate friendly techniques. We recently reached out to Davon Goodwin, a first generation Black farmer and owner-operator of Off The Land Farms in Laurinburg, North Carolina to discuss his experience as a farmer growing in these extreme conditions.
Davon currently produces muscadine grapes, blackberries and mixed vegetables on his 42-acre farm and is also the director of Sandhills Ag Innovation Center, a local food hub that is an important component of the local sustainable agriculture and local food scene. This interview was conducted by former Alaska state Representative Geran Tarr over zoom and was shortened for length and clarity. We previously profiled Davon on his experience as a Black farmer. Check out part one and part two of the previous interviews with Davon.
SiX Ag: We just had the three warmest days on record globally preceded by several years of increasingly high temperature periods across the country- What has been the impact (if any) on your farm? How have your farming practices changed (or not) due to the general increase in temperature?
Davon: Yes- this year has been weird. We had a very warm winter, I mean we are in the south, but it was warm for us, then a late cold spell and now the extreme heat events. I grow “muscadine grapes” – a large seeded grape with thicker skin, native to the North Carolina, so these can normally withstand some heat fluctuations, but these extremes are hard.
From a person working the land it’s been extremely hot. The heat index has been 105 degrees. It’s hard to work when it’s this hot. For example, we now work early in the morning, take the afternoon off, and then come back at 5 pm and work until 9 pm at night.
We harvest at night because the heat stresses the fruit. The sugars are stored at night so picking at night is less stressful for both the plants and the farmers. When the fruit is picked when it’s too hot the fruit breaks down that results in economic loss and we need to prevent this.
If this continues, farmers may need to take the summer off and then grow in the shoulder seasons. That would be a different model of farming, but would improve quality of life for farmers and performance for plants. This is what we think about in terms of picking our next crop. For us younger farmers we may not be able to grow the varieties that were grown by previous generations. We have to start looking at new varieties; that were grown even farther south.
We have to wonder if this an anomaly or the norm? If this is the norm, we may have to change our farm operations and what we grow. We may have to diversify and the heat waves will dictate how we do that.
SiX Ag: In recent years devastating wildfires (including those in Canada) have led to diminished air quality putting millions of people in air quality “red zones”. What does that mean on your farm? Have you had to modify operations to respond to the fires and if so, in what ways? How have you seen your farming community respond to the increased threat of fires and smoke?
Davon: What’s unique for us in North Carolina is that we do a lot of prescribed burning so it’s normal to have some haze and smoke. That’s what it seemed like this summer so it wasn’t out of the ordinary. This is probably not true for other areas. In our region a forest or crop is often burned to keep the forest healthy. The difference with the smoke from Canada was it was a slow moving haze vs when we burn it’s like a plume of smoke that moves along. The haze during harvest would be very problematic and thankfully we aren’t there yet.
SiX Ag: In your opinion, what is the top environmental/climate issue farmers and ranchers are currently facing? Why is this a concern for everyone and not just farmers and ranchers?
Davon: I would say heavy rain and flood events. The northeast is being flooded right now and that is totally wrong. In the south we are experiencing hurricanes and more extreme weather. I am about one and half hours from the coast and one major hurricane could wipe my farm out. When a hurricane hits there is widespread property destruction and that may end up changing where we are able to farm. If I was any closer to the coast I would be really worried because the storms are just getting stronger and stronger. When we get to picking season we are at the height of hurricane season. Last year right when we finished picking a big storm came in. Every time I see a storm coming in I am worried about how close it will come to the farm. When we are picking grapes we can’t have heavy rain fall. When I see the pictures of Vermont and Massachusetts it hits me that it’s a lot of rain. When we look to the future of agriculture we need to have these conversations. This is not political, it doesn’t matter what political party you are, for us this is real life. The reality is we have to deal with now. What are the steps on the farm we can take to mitigate climate change? What can I do as a business owner to lessen effects? We have to have these conversations.
SiX Ag: As a farmer/rancher, you are on the front lines when it comes to climate disruptions. What message do you have for policy makers looking to address the climate crisis? How can policymakers support your work as a farmer in adapting to changing climate conditions?
Davon: I think when it comes to policy change I would say that if we can have more funding for climate smart practices and conservation programs. Because we are seeing such drastic changes, at this point, in my opinion, the best way to address climate change is through mitigation and farmers will need support to do that.