by Spencer Fenniman, Director of Farm Operations
Hawthorne Valley Spring 2021

An aerial view of Hawthorne Valley this spring, including greenhouses, barn yard, several pastures, the Place Based Learning Center’s Children’s Garden (middle of photo), and the Corner Garden (upper right) .

The recently released UN report on climate change painted a grim future. Agricultural practices are often heralded as one of the major solutions in the climate crisis. This is certainly true, especially on grazing-focused mixed livestock farms, where management focused on improving soil organic matter and broader ecosystem services can not only improve carbon retention, but also improve water quality and increase habitat for biodiversity. However, it is important to recognize that even with the best regenerative management practices in place, agriculture is bound to get much more challenging as our climate becomes less predictable.

Perhaps these are short term, “forgotten next year” events, or perhaps this uncertainty is what to expect going forward. Only time will tell.

Bargaining with the weather is part of farming, but this agricultural season has been more like a pendulum than most. Following last year’s drought, we were concerned about how the land would respond this year ̶ the pastures, the crops that span the seasons, the surface water we rely on for irrigation. Until the end of June, it was drier than normal, but the moisture seemed to always be just enough when needed. And then it started raining. A “usual” summer month is 4” of rain ̶ we had close to 14” of rain in a 4-week time period. It wasn’t just the amount of rain, but the lack of sunny days didn’t allow our fields to dry out. This, in turn, was followed by close to a month of almost no rain. This will allow us to plant fall vegetable crops and harvest winter feed. Now in the wake of luckily only minor flooding from Tropical Storm Henri, what will the fall bring?
flooded stream at Hawthorne Valley Farm
An overflowing stream in July overtook this cow path, which is also the main access to one of our vegetable fields.
Is this the new normal  ̶̶  the localization of global climate collapse? Often in our daily reality, climate change is happening “over there,” “out west,” or “up north.” Year by year all these threads unravel, and while it may not be as severe an effect as elsewhere, we still wake up to a smoke filled day sometimes from the fires “out west”. The rain in July had real consequences for the farm: vegetable crops drowned; livestock health was affected by a lack of pasture access and flooding; flooding washed away sensitive riparian areas; and grain crops sprouted on the stalk. Perhaps these are short term, “forgotten next year” events, or perhaps this uncertainty is what to expect going forward. Only time will tell.

Promoting the means to a viable, resilient, and climate-friendly local food economy is everyone’s future work.

Farmer Jess stands in one of the flooded pastures following Tropical Storm Henri.
Our cows had to spend many days in July in the cow yard due to the wet conditions of the fields.

Grain harvest including these oats was a real struggle with the wet weather causing weed growth and sprouting.

We humans, and the greater biotic community we are a part of, interact with our local climate in a habitual relationship. Farmers, and the farmland they steward, are perhaps more entangled in this habit than most. Our farms and farming practices have evolved within a particular set of relationships afforded by this habitual relationship. The uncertainty of our collapsing climate is forcing us to learn new habits.

How do we continue to produce food in this new reality? We must deepen our relationship to our farm ̶ to understand our soil, the plants and trees that struggle and thrive, the creeks, and all the other corners that are habitats for a wealth of biodiversity. And beyond that are the material flows,  the energy flows, and the interrelationships that are fundamental to a thriving regenerative farm. Through this engagement, we can hope to learn these new habits.

What it takes to farm in this climate is nothing different from the past; rather the margin of error is much smaller. To this end, we must plan, not for the plan itself (which usually is garbage immediately), but for the planning process in which we will have laid the groundwork for adaptability. We must be ready to act when the time comes ̶ with the appropriate equipment in working order, and the mental and material flexibility to adapt to what each week might give us. We must make our farms and farming practices suitable to the land, and as resilient as possible, investing in the land with an eye toward resiliency in the face of extremes. We must also reflect and ask ourselves if we are merely making our farming practices resilient, or whether we’re stewarding the land to be adaptable for the emergent future.

For the past several years, we have focused on strengthening our stream banks, in part, by planting trees along riparian areas.
With all the rain this summer, we’ve had some beautiful rainbows over the valley.
Each farm’s adaptation will be different, the product of a unique context. Each farm’s adaptation, however it unfolds, is essential. Our farm is characterized by heavier soils, with hilly aspects, and lots of micro-diversity. Our focus is on managing for the periods where our soils remains water-logged, and for the increased potential for long-term negative effects that soil compaction from tillage or cattle grazing in the wrong conditions can have on our ability to be resilient in this evolving climate.

We must engage with our community, and evolve our commerce to spread the risks of producing food in such an uncertain climate. In the past year, between the pandemic and the growing ecological crisis in California, the importance of a decentralized food system fueled by local producers has been made clearer than ever. Promoting the means to a viable, resilient, and climate-friendly local food economy is everyone’s future work.