Climate change prompts farmers pa. to adapt their cultures and businesses

McPherson said he was surprised by his latest harvest: an acre of lavender planted on a ridge overlooking a wide valley. He cultivated five varieties totaling about 2,000 plants to spread out the blooming period of the flowers.

McPherson said the soil in the field is too thin and dry for corn, but perfect for drought-tolerant lavender. Plants begin to bloom in June, attracting pollinators to the farm and extending the agritourism season even further. The farm held its first Lavender Festival this summer, where guests could make lavender sachets and take Instagram-worthy photos.

Lavender fields at Maple Lawn Farms in York County on September 20, 2022. (Jeremy Long/WITF)

Experts say diversification can make farmers less vulnerable to climate change, although there are nuances.

Michael Roth, director of policy at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said climate change can open up the potential for diseases and invasive species. For example, Pennsylvania is facing an epidemic of highly pathogenic avian influenza.

“If you have chickens on your premises, it can shut down not only your chicken business, if it came to your farm, but all other activities,” Roth said.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker, executive director of Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, has heard of many farmers opening direct-to-consumer sales and fruit growers changing varieties to cope with the hot weather. Annual crop growers rely more on tall tunnels, temporary structures that act like greenhouses to protect crops.

“On my own farm, boy, we just can’t keep up with the rhythms and schedules of planting and harvesting that we could keep up with for decades,” she said. “We find that the spring weather is so variable, the fall weather is so variable, and the summer weather has so many longer-term and short-term droughts. But then we’ll just have a downpour of rain.

Smith-Brubaker said it will take a change in practices, not just cultures, to resist climate change.

“At the end of the day, farmers are really going to have to make sure that the way they farm mitigates the risks associated with climate change and doesn’t make them worse,” she said.

Pasa recently received a federal grant to promote climate-smart agricultural practices. These include planting cover crops during the winter to allow these plants to store carbon in their roots and reducing tillage so that the carbon remains trapped in the soil.

A solar panel is visible.
A solar panel at Maple Lawn Farms in York County on September 20, 2022. (Jeremy Long/WITF)

McPherson’s agri-tourism business has helped Maple Lawn Farms weather the storm. But this is not his only solution. He uses cover crops and installed solar panels on his barn a few years ago. He said farmers understand the risks ahead.

“We are the first to take the climate seriously, aren’t we? Because we depend on the weather every day,” he said.

But, even if it rains today, McPherson knows he has other days to catch up.

Elisha A. Tilghman