Growing Food in a Changing Climate

Farmer Spotlight: Adam Barr from Barr Farms

In recent years, Adam Barr and his farm crew at Barr Farms in Meade County have experienced more unexpected periods of drought, wetter than average summers, and heavy storms. These increasingly common weather events have made farming even more unpredictable but have also intensified an existing challenge on Barr Farms with their fragipan soils.

This specific soil type is a struggle for Kentucky farmers and landowners across 2.7 million acres of the state. Fragipan soils are characterized by a dense layer of silt particles just below the topsoil. These particles cement together and form an impermeable soil layer 22 inches below the surface that suspend water and prevent root penetration.

Adam has always joked that he would never recommend someone start growing vegetables on fragipan soils, but he was determined to find a way to grow healthy food for the community - and he did. The key was to work on improving soil health. It turns out what is good for fragipan soils is also good to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Cover crops are one main strategy Barr Farms uses to promote healthy soil. Three years ago Adam started to include annual rye grass between the rows of his vegetables after University of Kentucky research led by (retired) soil scientist Lloyd Murdock found encouraging results for fragipan soils. This grass and other cover crops on the farm keep more living roots in the soil. When the soil has more biomass underground it has better structure, less compaction, and isn't as susceptible to erosion. It also increases the soil’s ability to act like a sponge and absorb more water in times of heavy rainfall and hold onto more water in times of drought - a key benefit with climate change.

Promoting soil microbes has also made a positive impact on the farm. For a few years now, Adam has incorporated a locally made, biochar-based compost into the soil. Think of this biochar like a soil microbe hotel. Its carbon structure creates more places for microbes to live in the soil. More soil microbes mean more nutrients getting to the plants - a key benefit in fragipan soils where root growth is limited. Plants that get more nutrients are also healthier and better able to handle environmental stressors like extreme temperatures and disease.

Adam hasn’t stopped there; he has also made other investments on the farm to better prepare for future growing seasons like installing drainage tiles in especially flood-prone fields, improving an on-farm pond, investing in irrigation infrastructure, adding high tunnels for more controlled growing environments, and experimenting with perennial orchards and tree crops for a transitional future plan.

Farming in challenging soils and a changing climate will take a multi-pronged approach but Barr Farms is well on the path. Learn more about the farm on their OAK directory profile here. If you are a farmer interested in learning practical tools for a climate-resilient farm, join us for a free virtual Field Day with Farmer Adam on September 30th - register here.

To learn more, visit this YouTube Playlist on Sustainable Agriculture here.

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