Q&A: After a wet year, then a dry one, Brattleboro’s Rebop Farm adapts to climate change

Scientists expect that more rain will fall in Vermont because of climate change — but they also expect more frequent periods of drought.

Rain has been falling in bursts, which increases the likelihood that water will run off the landscape, rather than soaking into the soil, replenishing the ecosystem.

This pattern has already begun to play out. Last summer, rain swamped the southern half of the state as northern Vermont remained dry. The US Drought Monitor designated the dry conditions in the southeastern corner of the state this month as “severe drought,” which has also appeared in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and other parts of New England.

It’s a relatively localized issue — water levels in Lake Champlain are only down by roughly half a foot compared to its average, a marked improvement from the end of last summer, according to Oliver Pierson, manager of the Agency of Natural Resources’ lake and pond program.

Roger Hill, a meteorologist based in Worcester, said this week’s rain will likely help quell the lingering dry conditions in much of the state.

But conditions are likely to continue fluctuating as climate change progresses, and extreme weather extremes are becoming more common. Farmers are one group particularly affected by this swing.

On a hillside in Brattleboro, first generation farmers Ashlyn Bristle and Abraham McClurg manage close to 70 acres of pasture and forest where they tend to a herd of Jersey cows, sheep and pigs, selling raw milk and meat. From a retail store on the property of their Rebop Farm, they offer their own products and those of 90 other area producers.

Last year, the farm was subject to extreme rain and wet conditions. This year, their fields saw fire in April due to drought. Bristle spoke with VTDigger about how the farm, which they’ve operated since 2014, has adapted.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VTD: Is this the first time you’ve been affected by extreme weather?

Ashlyn Bristle: We had similar drought conditions in 2020. It broke a little bit earlier — we ended up getting more rain in July. 2021 was also a really exceptional year. We got an unbelievable amount of rain in July — the average rainfall in Vermont for our area is about three inches. We got 24 (inches that month).

That summer, in 2021, we got multiple cases of toxic mastitis in our cows, which can be fatal within 12 to 24 hours if you don’t catch it quickly and treat it. It’s very, very unpleasant for them, and it was so expensive. It was so hard to see these animals that we love and take care of — the dairy cows are my buddies. I don’t want them to feel like that, ever. I really care about them and their quality of life, and it seemed preventable.

I’ve found it’s a wet condition thing. You often see it on cows that have just given birth. We had them out grazing, and if somebody decides to lay with her udder out in a puddle overnight, they can contract it. It’s very, very painful and toxic. We’ve vaccinated against it, but sometimes the conditions are bad enough.

VTD: How have you adapted to these swings in weather?

Ashlyn Bristle: It was all over the map last year, and that was one of the reasons that we decided to go ahead with the barn project, so that we had a safe space no matter what the weather was outside. With that, we built a lot of systems to help it stay drier or cooler, or whatever it was that the animals needed to be healthy and productive.

As a grazing farm, we hadn’t invested so aggressively in infrastructure that could be used year-round like that. We’ve always had winter housing, but our animals were outside 100% of the time.

So that was the impetus for our realization that every system has to have buffer capacity; every system has to be able to hold all of our animals. That’s a huge number of animals in the summertime. We’re sitting on 100 sheep right now. We raised 80 pigs over the year — 2,000 chickens, we’re gonna be at 15 cows by next spring. Getting them all inside somewhere on a little hill farm — it’s a big undertaking. This year, it was the opposite. It was so, so dry, they needed to be under fans because of heat stress.