What Climate Change Means for Urban Farming and Gardening

east new york farms urban gardening peppers
east new york farms urban gardening peppers
Urban farms have a few different challenges verses rural farms—space, water and soil quality issues are quite different.

Editor’s note: This piece focuses on soil-based, outdoor urban farms and gardens. The city’s also home to a growing community of indoor ag operations that we don’t acknowledge here. You can learn more about them on the NYC Agriculture Collective’s website and at our Food Loves Tech event on November, 2-3 at Industry City.

A collective sigh of “finally” seemed to float on the warm sunny breezes early last weekend as joyous relief palpably took hold of the city. Scattered throughout of course were utterances of “Yeah, but it’s going to be a mess again on Sunday.” And while weather variations can be a drag or delight for us, what it means for gardens and farms is of a whole other order. One overnight frost in the midst of a burgeoning spring can be the death knell for fruits and vegetables. There’s much to consider then in terms of anticipated climate change extremes and how urban gardens can best prepare.

Fortunately, we New Yorkers have excellent resources within a garden-gloved hand’s reach, foremost among them Cornell Cooperative Extension and GreenThumb. We got the chance to catch up with Darcy Telenko, Cooperative Extension “Vegetable Specialist” for insight into what climate change means for urban farming, what practices we can employ and what resources to use to give locally grown produce the best fighting chance.

But first, what is the Cornell Cooperative Extension and why should we trust them?

Edible Brooklyn: Could you describe your job for us a little?
Darcy Telenko: My job as an Extension Vegetable Specialist is to work together with Cornell faculty and Extension educators statewide to address issues impacting commercial vegetable production. I help provide research-based educational programs and information to growers and agri-business professionals, arming them with the knowledge to profitably produce and market safe and healthful vegetable crops. My program focuses on fresh market vegetable production, disease and weed management, soil health and climate change resiliency. I am also part of the Cornell Climate Smart Farming Extension Team where I provide assistance in farm resiliency and sustainably.

The workshop on “Gardening in a Changing Climate: What to Expect and How to Adapt,” I facilitated with GreenThumb in Brooklyn was the first time I had done Extension programming in the New York City area. I have worked with a few urban farms in Buffalo through other projects. We have been expanding our programs to help assist many new and beginning farmers, those both in rural and urban areas—these new areas of farming do present some interesting challenges that we normally don’t encounter in a rural farm setting.

EB: Can you briefly explain for our readers what the Cornell Cooperative Extension is and the role it plays in state agriculture?
DT: Cornell Cooperative Extension is a statewide educational system that enables community improvement through experience and research knowledge. This system has been an active part of agriculture in New York for over 100 years. I believe the mission of Cornell Cooperative Extension is to serve our constituents by extending the research-based knowledge and problem-solving resources of the university to focus on the needs of people throughout the state. Through our Extension programming we can put this knowledge to work in the pursuit of economic vitality, environmental sustainability and social well-being. I believe that Extension helps unite local experience and research-based solutions with a goal of helping farms, families and communities thrive in our rapidly changing world.

EB: When did Cornell Cooperative Extension start addressing the effects of climate change on food and how is that field being developed? Can you describe a little?
I would say Cooperative Extension has been addressing the effects of the climate on food for over 100 years—it just hasn’t been officially called “climate change.” We have always worked to help farms improve production by providing guidance on best practices, including using improved varieties or tools as they become available to help growers mitigate changes in the environment that impact their farm. The Climate Smart Farming Extension Team was established in 2014 to help translate the climate sciences and research into useful on-farm tools that help increase agricultural productivity and sustainability and farm resiliency to extreme weather and climate variability, which is having a greater impact on the agricultural industry.

east new york farms urban gardening climate change
Climate change can impact urban farms in the same way as rural—extreme weather events (rain, drought, snow), new pests (diseases, insects and weeds), shifts in growing season are a few changes noticed in both.

What online resources are there for urban farmers and gardeners?

EB: As a resource, the Cooperative Extension website is quite impressive and looks like a great place to start when planning crops, whether you’re a farmer, a window-box grower or anywhere in between. Pick any vegetable and you get a brief New York–oriented description, pests to look out for, harvest seasons and how to extend them. It looks pretty non-intimidating, but I notice drilling down a little, say, to carrots, there are links to more advanced agricultural practices that appear to open up to all the scholarship that’s ever been done on the subjects. This, of course, goes for whatever crop the viewer chooses to look up. Can you explain what you’re hoping to offer with this website and to whom?
DT: Our website is designed to be an additional resource for our growers. It is a clearinghouse of all our research and educational materials.

EB: Maybe how an urban gardener in particular can use this site for greatest functionality?
DT: Urban gardeners may feel free to use any public material on our website—but I caution that most all the research and extension publications are developed for our commercial farms that would have access to a larger array of tools. As a website resource I would suggest gardeners first access Cornell’s Gardening tools as they are geared more for the home gardener. For additional resources around NYC I would suggest contacting GreenThumb as a first resource.

EB: So, even if tentatively, it looks like the USDA is investing in urban gardening. Does that play any part in what you do? Are you collaborating with their on-the-ground gardening reps?
DT: Most projects that I would be involved in would be working with urban farm market gardens that are growing produce for income. Gardening projects would fall under the Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener Programs within each county.

What makes urban farming and gardening different from rural?

EB: How do reports from urban farm gardens differ from what you’re hearing upstate?
DT: Urban farms have a few different challenges verses rural farms—space, water and soil quality issues are quite different. They also have a different array of pests—squirrels, rats for example are not as major a problem in our production fields as they could be in an urban environment. During the 2016 drought, many farms faced significant damage from wildlife as their farm became an oasis for many urban pests including deer.

EB: Is climate change currently affecting urban gardeners? If so, in what way? Are you seeing any sort of patterns so far? Fruits, vegetables, nut and fruit trees, bees?
DT: Climate change can impact urban farms in the same way as rural—extreme weather events (rain, drought, snow), new pests (diseases, insects and weeds), shifts in growing season are a few changes that we can see in both.

What is a plant hardiness zone and why should growers care?

EB: Can you briefly describe plant hardiness zones. Has the New York City region changed hardiness zones in the past few decades? The past few years?
DT: Plant hardiness zones are the standard by which we can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. I think NYC has already seen a shift from Zone 5-6 in 1990 to Zone 6-7 in 2006 based on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map.

EB: How should these changes in hardiness zones inform urban gardeners in terms of crop planning? For instance, I understand that fruit and nut trees can take five to 10 years before reaching full fruition. Do we need to consider the temperate zone 10 years from now when planting, say, apple trees? Will we soon get to plant more in the way of ginger? Are there some crops usually relegated to more Southern climes that we may be able to grow in the city?
DT: There could be profitable opportunities to experiment with new crops or new crop varieties as temperatures rise and the growing season lengthens—growers will just have to experiment with what would best grow in an urban environment.

So all this considered, how should urban growers think about mitigating the effects of climate change?

EB: Farming and food production has always been characterized by unforeseeable variables that can be incredibly punishing and sometimes even beneficial, from the devastations of potato blight to droughts producing sweeter fruit. However, impending effects from climate change are of another order. Can you speak to that and how we might need to upgrade our resilience?
DT: We just need to continue to search and apply the best management practices and tools as they become available for the future sustainability of agriculture and our natural resources.

EB: What role do you think urban gardens can play in staving off or coping with the effects of climate change?
DT: The best we can do is use environmentally sound practices, recycle and conserve energy to the best of our abilities. That’s all any of us can strive to do.

EB: Any best practices?
DT: Conservation of our natural resources.

EB: Is there a place urban gardeners can go to ask specific questions in relation to climate change?
DT: Helpful Cornell resources include our gardening and Extension sites.

Christopher Simpson originally shot these photos for our 2015 story on East New York Farms.