By Cheryl Herrick
As we look ahead to our work in the fields this spring, summer, and fall, we’re again thinking a lot about water. Agricultural water quality is a hugely important issue both in and out of Vermont, and newly in focus now as Vermont’s Required Agricultural Practices have taken effect.
A hands-on watering systems workshop for livestock farmers.
Of course, it’s not only the regulatory climate that has changed, but the actual climate as well. Like everyone whose livelihood is tied up with the health of the land, we’re paying attention to rainfall, severe storms, periods of drought, soil erosion, and their impacts on farmers’ and communities’ lives. Staff and faculty from the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture are observing, documenting, and sharing so that we can help Vermont’s farmers and communities thrive in spite of increasingly uncertain conditions.
Joshua Faulkner, Farming & Climate Change Program coordinator, has gathered a short list of observations and recommendations about water management on Vermont farms.
1. There is much uncertainty associated with climate change, especially precipitation. Dependable weather patterns are a thing of the past; an extremely wet month may very well be followed by an extremely dry month. Predictability is at an all-time low. Furthermore, even though climate change will bring us more rain year-to-year, the pattern will likely be of intense storms, separated by very dry periods.
2. Irrigation will be needed more and more to provide resilience to the uncertainty of climate change and ensure even, consistent water for crops through the growing season. A recent study projected that irrigation demand in Vermont would increase steadily over the next several decades to be 1.75 times what it currently is (McDonald and Girvetz, 2013).
3. When choosing an irrigation system, drip irrigation is a great choice compared to overhead or sprinkler systems, for a number of reasons.
- Use less water
- Reduce pest/disease problems because it doesn’t wet the entire plant or cause soil splash
- Can be integrated with fertilizer applications (i.e., fertigation) for improved timing and placement, as well as cost savings
- Can help avoid requirement of new produce safety rules that require testing of overhead irrigation water
- Improving soil health, especially increasing soil organic matter, will help boost a soil’s water holding capacity. This additional water in the soil profile aids resilience by enabling plants to avoid water stress during some dry periods.
- Consider trying more drought-tolerant vegetable and forage varieties. These can significantly improve yields in a dry year. UVM Extension’s Sid Bosworth has this presentation on considerations for forage species.
4. Seeking more information on irrigation and other elements of water management for Vermont farms? Here are some resources and opportunities:
- Quick Guide to Climate Change and Agriculture in Vermont
- Resources from the Center’s Farming & Climate Change Program
- Drip-Irrigation Systems for Small Conventional Vegetable Farms and Organic Vegetable Farms (an excellent fact sheet from IFAS Extension at the University of Florida)
- Drought Monitor, which is what folks working in agriculture use to gauge drought conditions regionally. See the ‘Northeast’ section on the right.
- NOAA’s long range forecast page for the upcoming season, including temperature and precipitation (but remember long range forecasting has to be taken with a grain of salt).
- The national drought outlook for the coming season.
-Cheryl Herrick manages communications and the office at the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture and lives, writes, and cooks in Burlington.