Farmers on the Front lines of Climate Change
Vegetable starts in the greenhouse at Four Winds Farm in early April.
A Conversation with
OF FOUR WINDS FARM
Jenna Kincaid, who has spent the last eight seasons as Farm Manager at Four Winds Farm in Ulster County, New York, believes that sustainable agriculture offers a lot of solutions to the social, environmental, and economic challenges of our time. “I initially got into farming because of a general interest in it and enjoyment in the tasks, but the reason I landed at Four Winds Farm and stayed is because the farm is a completely no-till operation.” With several decades of no-till management under its belt, Four Winds Farm is a best-in-class example of climate resilient, soil-friendly agriculture.
Jenna Kincaid, Manager of Four Winds Farm and President, Hudson Valley Young Farmers Coalition
“The major benefit that we see here is increased organic matter,” Jenna shares, “which allows our soil to be really adaptable and flexible to changing weather patterns.” In addition to increased water-holding capacity, the farmers at Four Winds report reduced pest pressure compared with till-based farm operations in the area thanks to the vitality of their soil and the presence of beneficial microorganisms that help keep plants healthy and ward off pests and diseases.
The most important benefit of no-till farming, Jenna affirms, is its simplicity: “It’s a very simple system that works. It doesn’t need to be overly complicated, you can manage it with very little input, and the benefits to the soil, land, and workforce—in terms of providing quality work, workplace safety, and employee health—are so great. You can tell the vegetables are full of nutrients, it feels like an appropriate way of farming. And we produce a lot of food on a small amount of land, which is exciting to me.”
Asparagus, kale, and other early spring produce offered by Four Winds Farm at the very start of its season.
Climate Change at Four Winds Farm
Extreme rain events, poor air quality, and heat waves have all increased over the course of Jenna’s tenure at Four Winds Farm.
“When we get rain it comes in large quantities over a short period of time, instead of being spread out. And yet our rain and overall precipitation has been a lot lower— we’ve had to change spring planting to more direct seeding because we can’t rely on rain and snow melt like in the past.”
Extreme heat has also been a problem for both farm labor and livestock management. “Heat waves have been really intense,” Jenna reports. “Now every summer we have a month of sporadic heat waves where it’s over 100 degrees and we can’t or shouldn’t be working outside. It’s stressful for our chickens—they can die of heat exhaustion very quickly and so we try to keep them close to buildings and run fans and water on them.” The heat waves have also had a compounding effect on air quality, which has produced noticeably more difficult labor conditions for farmworkers that inevitably need to be outside to do their job.
Jay Armour, co-owner with his wife, Polly, of the "no-till" Four Winds Farm.
Four Winds Farm: a Model for Climate Change Adaptation
When asked about the farm’s preparedness for increasingly extreme weather events on a warming planet, Jenna shares: “In a lot of ways our system is set up to handle climate change.” Recognizing that the farm is well-positioned thanks to the quality of its soil structure from decades of no-till management, Jenna notes that they are nonetheless working on other aspects of farm resilience.
“One of the things we’re doing is building out our tree lines, and we just added a new well to increase water availability,” she reports. More trees will increase shade and safety for livestock, while a new well will ensure water in the case of drought. Seed saving, too, has become an important practice: “We started because a lot of varieties we like are no longer available, but now we’re able to grow out varieties specific to our farm that do really well in our soil, and that provides a more resilient crop.”
Sourcing inputs like seeds and fertilizer on-site or locally also reduces the farm’s reliance on external inputs, a practice that provides insurance against supply-chain disruptions (a risk made tangible by the Covid-19 pandemic). Compost produced on-site from cows or trucked in from local horse farms plays a critical role in the no-till system’s soil fertility. “We’re always trying to close our loop as much as we can,” Jenna shares. An innovative but simple forced air compost system, powered by a fan that runs off the farm’s solar panels, allows the farm to avoid using a tractor to turn compost while minimizing the use of petroleum-based machinery.
Cows are rotationally grazed on site, providing important soil fertility benefits and an eventual source of beef for customers.
Taken together, farm practices like no-till management, seed saving, and on-site composting yield a farm operation better prepared for a future of increasingly severe and unpredictable weather patterns.
“Food is crucial and the long-term solution to these chronic health and other society-wide issues,” Jenna reflects. “I think no-till, low-till, small-scale operations are able to adapt quickly because they are often super-diversified and they have a lot of flexibility in terms of what they grow and when they grow. In the spring we’re not waiting around for the perfect weather to prepare beds, we can just plant and seed and so we can produce food sooner which is needed in the current situation. Just the flexibility and adaptability provides security.”
Jenna presented this winter at a Soil Health Roundtable hosted by the New York Senate and Assembly Agriculture Committees.
Climate, Soil Health, and Policy Change
In addition to her experience as a farmer, Jenna serves as President of the Hudson Valley Chapter of the National Young Farmer’s Coalition. “As a chapter, we help organize community events to support young farmers in the region, and during this crisis that has meant working together to shift marketing and farming strategies to help feed our communities. We also gather to discuss ideas for policy change to support young farmers, and to engage in advocacy around those ideas.”
“Progressive climate change and soil health policy is about soil health practices," she shares, "but it is also about land access and all of the other challenges confronting young farmers and particularly black farmers, indigenous farmers, and other farmers of color (BIPOC farmers). Speaking at the New York State’s Joint Legislative Roundtable on Soil Health in February of 2020, Jenna emphasized in her remarks to agriculture legislative leaders, including Committee Chairs Senator Jennifer Metzger and Assemblymember Donna Lupardo, the need to focus broadly on incentives rather than mandates for soil-friendly management practices.
“This is a crucial piece for me,” she noted. “Every farm is unique and has different resources and capabilities. If you start mandating different practices you’re potentially shutting people out of a lot of practices. If you build incentives folks are able to work with what they have in terms of their specific land needs.” Ideally, direct payouts could be made to farmers who voluntarily adopt site-specific management practices that improve soil health.
Moreover, Jenna believes that such incentives could be built into current policies to fund existing service providers (such as university extension agents and conservation districts) in supporting the wider adoption of soil health management practices. Within the State’s farmland protection program Jenna observes that while there is consideration of prime soils, regenerative practices could be an additional priority. “We could be prioritizing protecting farms where regenerative agriculture and soil health practices are being implemented.”
Policies should also accommodate the long-term investment required for implementing soil health practices, ideally in the form of direct pay-outs. “For example,” Jenna shares, “I recently purchased great farmland that has been overgrazed and overworked for a really long time— and there’s a lot of investing in the soil that needs to happen. I’m not comfortable producing anything except cover crops for the next five years, so we’ll have minimal income until the soil is ready. It would be great to have policies in place to offset this investment while the soil is being improved for farming over the long term.”
Those policies don’t necessarily have to be specific to soil health, to have an impact on soil health. Farm improvement grants can take financial pressure off part of the operation and free up funds to invest in soil health. However, Jenna notes that existing agricultural grant programs like the New Farmers Grant Fund Program could be reformed and reassessed to better serve young, beginning, and BIPOC farmers. “Currently they are built to be accessible by larger farms, and the reality is that many young farmers aren’t able to do a match grant for $50,000 to $100,000, for example. The education around the grant is not really accessible and it isn’t oriented around the growing season, either.”
Aerial photo of Four Winds Farm in Gardiner, New York
Policy for Land Access: Supporting those who need it most
During the round table, Jenna also emphasized the importance of addressing systemic inequities in agriculture policy, drawing attention to issues raised in a statement submitted for the round table by Soul Fire Farm. “There are a lot of barriers for farmers across the board,” Jenna observes, “but if you come from a non-farming family, if you are a BIPOC farmer, if you have student loans, land access is even more complex.”
Recognizing that BIPOC farmers face the most significant barriers to entry in agriculture, Kincaid sees policy as playing a vital role for historically marginalized communities seeking greater participation in the food system. “I think that policy can support these communities by prioritizing organizations and projects that are already doing the work: the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, for example, already has soil health practices highlighted within its organization.
BIPOC farmers have been pushed off the land and discriminated against with unfair lending practices, and in order to get these farmers back on the land we need to create policies that bring everyone back to the land together. I think a big part of that with the incentives I’m talking about is prioritizing BIPOC and other marginalized farmers, and hopefully part of the land access portion includes land reparations.” The recent focus of agricultural leaders in Albany on some of these issues gives Jenna hope that we’ll begin to see more progressive proposals connecting the dots between climate change, systemic inequities, and agricultural policy.