How Alumni Farmers, Winemakers Deal with Unpredictable Weather

Eric Preusse tends to grapes at his vineyard

By Ed Brennen

“If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” Mark Twain is widely credited for the old quip that’s as true today as it was in Samuel Clemens’ time. 
UML alumni who make their living tending to local farms and vineyards understand the fickle nature of New England weather better than anyone. From droughts to nor’easters, they’ve seen it all. Here’s what a few of them had to say about contending with our ever-changing elements.
Grapes have a notoriously delicate temperament, which makes growing them for wine production such a challenging blend of science and art. That’s particularly true in New England, according to Eric Preusse ’83, founder of Broken Creek Vineyard and Winery in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.
“You have to deal with either rain, extreme cold or humidity—all the stuff that grapes don’t like,” says Preusse, an electrical engineering alum who started Broken Creek with his wife, Peggy, in 2011. They recently sold the business, but Preusse will be staying on for a year to get the new owners up to speed on viticulture and winemaking.
A native of Westborough, Massachusetts, Preusse says recent summers have been particularly extreme.
“There’s an old expression in the wine industry: Grapes don’t like wet feet,” he says. “When you get a lot of rain, like we did in 2021, you have to deal with all kinds of mold and fungi that attack the grapes and the leaves.”
Conversely, the hot and dry 2022 had Preusse wishing that he had invested in an irrigation system for the 40-acre vineyard.
Even during the winter, when grape vines are dormant, things can get bad. “I lost some vines because of the cold,” Preusse says. “There was no snowpack to insulate the grapevines, so they suffered.”
Henrietta Isaboke next to the World Farmers sign
In Lancaster, Massachusetts, a nonprofit called World Farmers runs a 60-acre plot where more than 350 immigrants and refugees from 30 countries grow ethnic crops to sell in markets. Set in the Bolton Flats, a flood plain along the Nashua River, the farm has always been susceptible to rising waters. 
But Executive Director Henrietta Isaboke ’11 has never seen anything like the summer of 2021, one of the rainiest on record in Massachusetts.
“We were flooded out completely. The water was waist-high in some areas,” says Isaboke, a Kenyan immigrant and criminal justice alumna. “A lot of our farmers lost nearly all of their production and ended up planting multiple times.”
Isaboke says it has become tougher to predict the growing season in recent years. The rain-soaked summer of 2021, for instance, was followed up by drought in 2022, the sixth-warmest year on record in Massachusetts.
“When we started, we knew the season begins in June and ends in November. But the last six or seven years, it’s been very unpredictable,” Isaboke says.
World Farmers recently expanded to the Central Massachusetts towns of Templeton and Sutton, which are less susceptible to flooding. And to deal with drought, the organization also helps its members purchase irrigation equipment with funding from the state’s Food Security Infrastructure Grant and from Natural Resources Conservation Services’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
“This year, we are in limbo,” she says. “There was not as much snow over the winter as we would like, so we don’t know what to expect. We’re just leaving all production up to Mother Nature.”
Christopher Horne harvest onions on his family farm
Horne Family Farms sits on a half-acre plot in Londonderry, New Hampshire, which founder Christopher Horne ’14 says is just the right size for dealing with unpredictable weather.
“I’m a true believer in small-scale or micro farms, where you can adapt and change things up within a moment’s notice,” says Horne, an economics alum. “I can even hand-water in times of drought.”
The Lowell native, who uses all organic practices, has learned that less is more when it comes to his crop variety, too.
“The first two or three years, I was very ambitious and excited when the seed catalogs came out. But I’ve been reducing the amount of crops every year,” says Horne, who is down to about 25 crops.
One of his biggest crops is lettuce mix, which he sells to local restaurants such as The Old Court and The Keep in Lowell. Horne sticks to heat-tolerant lettuce, astro arugula and mustard greens to withstand drought. He is also investing in shade cloth to protect more vulnerable crops like spinach.
Horne discovered an interest in agriculture as a volunteer with Mill City Grows during his junior year at UML. When he started his farm, he would sit down in February and map out a plan for the entire summer for planting, growing and harvesting.
“I learned early on that that’s just not sustainable. You have to switch things up because of the weather or pests, so I was never able to stick to the plan,” says Horne.
Emily Makrez harvesting mushrooms
During the long, hot summer of 2022, psychology alumna Emily Makrez ’07, ’09 says, she watered her garden beds at F-Word Farm in Dracut, Massachusetts, a grand total of two times.
That’s because when she started the farm behind her home in 2018, she did “sheet mulching,” a process of laying scrap cardboard on the existing soil and covering it with wood chips and compost.
“The cardboard and all the mycorrhizae that live underground, basically mushroom roots, they go get nutrients and water for the plants,” explains Makrez, who learned about sheet mulching while earning a master’s degree in dietetics and clinical nutritional science from Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. “If you’re working with Mother Nature, that’s a way to work around climate change.” 
At F-Word Farm, where the “F” stands for farming, foraging and fermenting, Makrez grows 40 types of peppers, 30 varieties of tomatoes and “all kinds of other stuff”—beans, bok choy, garlic, bronze fennel, shallots, summer squash, potatoes, asparagus, cucumbers, rhubarb, Chinese cabbage, zucchini and even loofah sponge. There are also plum, pear, peach, nectarine and cherry trees, along with around 30 chickens.
“The fact that I have such a diversity of plants here is helpful for me,” she says. “I’ve learned to appreciate what you do have going well.”
Makrez says this spring’s roller-coaster temperatures were “very tricky,” with a 93-degree day followed by a night below 50 degrees, which is “really bad” for tomatoes and peppers.
“The plants are like, ‘What the heck is going on?’” she says.
“You just have to work with the weather and do as much as you can to prepare yourself for it. What works for me is just keeping it as natural as possible, because nature is always going to be smarter than we are.”