On most spring mornings I walk around my garden in the city to survey and appreciate the survivors of the weather rollercoaster we’ve been riding in recent months: the days of unrelenting, hard freeze over the holidays, record rainfall in January, and all-time highs of more than 80 degrees in February. I admire the new leaves emerging from branches on azaleas, the bright-green holly fern fronds, and resilient oakleaf hydrangea, hellebore, and spiderwort.
There are also heartbreaks. The leaves on the creeping fig that steadily climbed the brick columns on my front porch during the pandemic years are now gray and brittle: no hint of new growth. The cast iron plants I thought were indestructible look like they’ve had a Cruella de Vil hairstyle makeover. My once lush fatsia plants have survived, barely, but no longer hide the ugly concrete wall in my backyard. All my potted plants left carelessly outside while wrapping presents and cooking holiday meals are dead.
Of course, my gardening losses do not even begin to compare to the devastation that hit Georgia farmers in late December, especially the small to mid-sized farms dedicated to sustainable, organic, and regenerative practices. Many of these operations lack the critical infrastructure needed to protect against freeze-related natural disasters. Winter Storm Elliott — the Arctic “bomb cyclone” that brought blizzards, high winds, snowfall and record cold temperatures across much of the country — destroyed winter crops and fruit trees, damaged expensive infrastructure, and killed livestock.
In Their Own Words
The farm losses that resulted from Elliott’s brutal winds and frigid cold — due in part to climate change and a warming Arctic region — are described in heart-wrenching detail by several of Georgia’s small farmers:
In all my 30 years of farming, I’ve never seen winter weather hit in the low digits consistently like this for days on end… We experienced wind chills of -15 degrees with 40 mph wind gusts. Despite our best efforts to cover and protect crops outside and inside high tunnels, the wind gusts blew off covers essentially freezing the crops underneath.
80 percent of our crops froze and died during the Arctic Storm, even with fleece covers and mulch. We spent hundreds of dollars in purchasing more fleece covers, hoops and weights in preparation for this storm… The wind tore many of them off the first night… the 6-degree temps were too cold, even with covers.
The freeze put stress on our sheep and cattle. We had two days where the well was broken and we had to wait for it to get above freezing for a couple hours to be able to fix the pipes and well pump… With the frequent rain after the stress of the freeze we are seeing higher than usual loss from the combination of stress and parasites… The very heavy rains… have not been good for the grasses and soil health either.
Weekly produce baskets delivered to urban front doors by the online farmer’s market Fresh Harvest (freshharvest.com) were filled with stored crops and root vegetables after the winter storm. Owner Zac Harrison says that in his ten years of operation, no other weather event has impacted so many of his growers at the same time for so long. Despite the irreversible damage and adversity, his two dozen farm partners are working overtime to raise spring crops and minimize their losses.
The Farmer Fund
Small farmers find themselves on the frontlines of climate change. They are particularly vulnerable to increasingly frequent extreme weather events and patterns, including floods, droughts, high heat, and rising pest and disease pressures.
A disaster relief program called The Farmer Fund, managed for the past five years by Georgia Organics (georgiaorganics.org), has been a life-saver — offering assistance through farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, and local restaurant sales. The oldest statewide nonprofit providing direct support to local and organic farmers, GO champions farmer prosperity, food justice, and climate-smart practices.
Post-Elliott, sixty farms located primarily in Georgia’s Piedmont region applied to The Farmer Fund for a total of $470,000 in disaster relief. Every farm received aid, on average about 70 percent of what they requested, thanks to fundraising efforts by GO, Food Well Alliance, The Common Market, Community Farmers Market, The Conservation Fund, Wholesome Wave Georgia, and generous donors.
Relief funds are critical to help farmers weather extreme events, but growers must also learn how to adapt to global heating by embracing conservation practices that sequester carbon in the soil — such as minimal tillage, mulching, composting, rotating livestock, and cover crops — while also reducing their reliance on fossil fuels.
In 2022, Drawdown Georgia (drawdownga.org) — a statewide nonprofit that has identified twenty high-impact solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade — initiated a new grant program to advance climate solutions and prioritize equity. GO received one of the five inaugural grants, which will provide $200,000 for the organization’s Climate-Smart Farmer Program.
For the next two years, GO will help prepare Black farmers in South Georgia to become more climate-solution literate. They will be equipped with tools to learn how to adapt to extreme weather events and build resilience while maintaining productivity. In addition to focusing on sustainable agricultural practices, GO will provide technical assistance to create small-scale rooftop solar systems to power the farms; this will include advice on options to access capital funds to shift to less-expensive, renewable energy sources.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are already experiencing the early stages of the climate crisis. Not just on farms and in kitchens, but also in our backyards, uncertain water supplies, expanding flood zones, wildfires, and stifling heat waves. Humans must adapt, but we have to work together.