Environmental efficiency grants help local farmers combat climate change

  • Phoenix Fruit Farm, located on Sabin Street in Belchertown, overlooks the Quabbin Reservoir and the Holyoke Range. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Elly Vaughan, 39, purchased Phoenix Fruit Farm from Atkins Farm last year, and will use the grant money to install a drip irrigation system for the peach, pear and nectarine trees she plans to plant in the spring. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Ryan Voiland, a 39-year-old co-owner of Red Fire Farm, says replacing sprinklers with a drip irrigation system will help the family farm deal with droughts in the long term. SARAH VOILAND/Red Fire Farm

  • In the spring, drip irrigation will replace the sprinklers at Red Fire Farm in Granby, using about half as much water and saving on energy costs.  SARAH VOILAND/Red Fire Farm

Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2017

BELCHERTOWN — In the era of climate change, farmers are on the front lines, enduring droughts, severe weather and unpredictable conditions that threaten their crops and livelihoods.

Now, with help from the state, four Hampshire County farms will purchase new, environmentally efficient equipment to give them a better chance of surviving the changes to come.

“I think it’s really great that the state has these programs to support farms,” said Elly Vaughan, 32, owner of Phoenix Fruit Farm in Belchertown. “It’s been a key resource for me building a business in our first year.”

In addition to the Phoenix farm, other farms to receive grants include Mayval Farm of Westhampton, Red Fire Farm of Granby and Black Squirrel Farm of Amherst. Each farm received several thousand dollars each from the Agricultural Environmental Enhancement Program. Warner Farm of Sunderland, home of Mike’s Maze, also received a grant.

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources awarded 23 grants totaling $350,000 to farmers across the state to purchase equipment that will “prevent or mitigate direct impacts on water and air quality and ensure efficient water use.”

In the Valley, the grants will help farmers upgrade irrigation systems and purchase “no-till” equipment that helps promote healthy soil.

Before buying Phoenix Farm from Atkins Farm last year, Vaughan managed Red Fire Farm for seven years. She plans to use the $11,700 in grant money to install a well and drip irrigation system in a new orchard of peaches, nectarines and pear trees she plans to plant in the spring.

Drip irrigation systems are a network of underground hoses that use about half as much water as traditional overhead sprinklers and can water plants with the turn of a valve. Part of the cost for the project is replacing a gas-powered pump with an electric pump that will have to be connected to the electric grid.

“We’ve had some unseasonably warm winters, and that seems to be becoming a pattern, and that’s concerning from a tree fruit point of view,” Vaughan said.

She said that warming temperatures will make the New England climate less hospitable to the region’s traditional apple orchards, but more suitable for southern fruits like the pears and peaches she plans to plant.

A particularly bad drought in the summer of 2016 prompted communities across the Valley to impose bans on nonessential outdoor water use and threatened farmers’ ability to water their crops.

For the owners of Red Fire Farm, that experience led to the rethinking of their entire irrigation system, which draws water from Stony Brook Creek.

“Summer of 2016 was a nonstop frustration, really, due to irrigation complications,” Ryan Voiland, 39, co-owner of the farm. “We realized how inadequate that old system was.”

With a $22,500 grant, the Voiland family will install a drip irrigation system and plant new peach trees. Black Squirrel Farm will also use $20,000 for a similar irrigation system upgrade.

“We’re really grateful they awarded us the grant, said Voiland. “It will really make a big difference for the farm in the long term.”

At Mayval Farm, a $22,500 grant will help purchase “no-till” equipment, a seeding machine that will plant cover crops to help keep more carbon and organic matter in the soil.

“No-till in general is being pushed as a good way to mitigate climate change by keeping carbon in the soil,” said Kate Parsons, 41, an eighth-generation owner of the family-run farm.

Unlike traditional seeders, no-till equipment can turn the soil and plant new seeds in one pass, cutting down on the need for fertilizers. The tool is especially helpful working in the rocky New England soil, Parsons added.

“If you can increase [organic matter] you are spending less money on fertilizer and you can have better crops,” Parsons said. “Then we will have higher yields and ultimately we might need less land.”

Parsons said the Mayval Farm is working to transition completely to a no-till farm. They expect the transition to take a few years, while the soil develops.

“We are striving to achieve a natural soil system,” Parsons said.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.