How Suzy Hodgson '81 Is Helping Farmers Adapt to Climate Change
How Suzy Hodgson '81 Is Helping Farmers Adapt to Climate Change

By Chelsea Edgar

Suzy Hodgson first laid eyes on a leech at Hotchkiss. Hoping to do some independent field research one day, she wrangled a pair of waders and trudged into a pond on campus. When the slimy black worm latched onto her net, she brought it to her science teacher and mentor, Deborah Reichert, who chastised her for traipsing out into a pool contaminated by sewage runoff.

Back then, the environmental science curriculum at Hotchkiss consisted of basic biology courses and a smattering of electives. Environmental studies were still considered a fringe discipline, and no one talked about climate change. ("Those were the Reagan years, when the government told us that ketchup counted as a vegetable in school lunches," she says.) Despite the relatively slim pickings, Hotchkiss instilled in her a lifelong love of the outdoors that led her to pursue a career in environmental management and climate research.

Today, her work may not involve wading into ponds, but she still spends a fair amount of time in rubber boots, helping farmers adapt to the unpredictable weather trends produced by climate change. As an outreach specialist with the University of Vermont's Center for Sustainable Agriculture, she has spent the past four years producing a series of video interviews, funded by the USDA's Northeast Climate Hub, to help educate Vermont farmers about practices that can reduce the effects of climate change on their bottom line. She also writes blog posts about farming and climate change, with headlines like "Raised Beds Raise Revenues at Golden Russet Farm" and "When Politics Go Low, Farmers Go High."

Hodgson's environmental awareness took shape at an early age. She read The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson as a seventh-grader at a private school in Fairfield, CT, where she grew up. At Hotchkiss, she signed up for as many outdoor-oriented sciences courses as she could, including a lab with Deborah Reichert, who became a mentor and role model to her. As an undergraduate at Smith, Hodgson took an environmental studies course at nearby Hampshire College — the only school in that area that offered one. She ended up creating her own major called "Land Use Studies," a combination of economics and environmental science that might not sound far-fetched today, but was practically unheard of then.

It wasn't until Hodgson went to graduate school at the Yale School of Forestry that she found her niche. (Ironically, as Hodgson only recently learned, she ended up following in Reichert's footsteps: they both attended Smith, then earned a master's in environmental management at Yale.) After completing her master's, Hodgson worked for 16 years as an environmental consultant in England, helping corporations reduce their carbon footprint.

In 2008, she and her husband returned to the U.S.; they were hopeful that the election of President Obama would signal a shift in environmental policy. So they moved to a 17-acre homestead Charlotte, VT, about 15 miles south of Burlington, where they raise sheep and goats and grow shiitakes. Hodgson started working at the University of Vermont's Center for Sustainable Agriculture, where, most recently, she's been talking to farmers about how they're coping with changing weather trends.

"You don't argue about who or what is responsible," she says. "You just say, 'This is what's going on, and how can we deal with it?'"

"We decided to produce the videos because our intention was to convey the message in the farmers' own voices," Hodgson says. "Farmers want to hear from other farmers about what works and what doesn't work."

Because Vermont's growing season is relatively short, even a single severe weather event — like a flood or a hailstorm — can have devastating consequences. In her blog posts and videos, Hodgson profiles farmers who take proactive measures, like Will and Judy Stevens of Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham, VT. In the 30 years that the Stevens have been farming, they've noticed that the growing seasons have become progressively wetter, with increasingly rainy springs and summers. The excess moisture damages root systems, causing crops to rot before they're ready for harvest.

2011 was an especially tough year: after Hurricane Irene, the Stevens lost nearly $34,000 in revenue. In the wake of that season, they decided to try raised bed farming, which helps with drainage and prevents the soil from getting saturated. After a few years of tinkering with the structure and purchasing new equipment, their efforts paid off: they more than recouped their original loss with higher net profits in subsequent seasons.

By telling stories about farmers like the Stevens, Hodgson hopes to send the message that long-term strategies can pay off in the face of increasingly unpredictable weather. But she acknowledges that it can be tough to convince farmers, who are often strapped for both time and cash, to make an up-front investment.

"Farmers respond to immediate crises, like floods," she says. "But day to day, their attitude is usually: 'This is my land, I'm taking care of it, my family and I are doing fine.'"

And there's also the challenge of talking about climate change: Hodgson says farmers are well aware of the effects of extreme weather, but not everyone agrees that climate change is the cause. So she tries to focus on the tangible impacts.

"You don't argue about who or what is responsible," she says. "You just say, 'This is what's going on, and how can we deal with it?'"

Since the Trump administration announced major cuts to the USDA and EPA, Hodgson worries that funding for her project and other climate research will soon dry up. But one thing that gives her hope is how resilient farmers can be in the face of hardship.

"One farmer I met was trying to plant acres of beans, and his tractor got stuck in the mud," she says. "Instead of getting upset, he just shrugged and said, 'It's gonna be one of those years.'"

This story appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.