When Stacey Givens awoke to find her house without electricity in February 2021, she pulled her boots on over her pajamas and ran to her barn, which shares the same power source as her home.

“I remember the floor [of the barn] was like an ice skating rink,” recalls Givens, who runs Side Yard Farm out of her Northeast Portland property. “Everything was frozen over.”

Givens was focused on one thing: The survival of the hundreds of tiny vegetable seedlings she had planted in potting soil just weeks before. The trays of seedlings had been placed on heating mats to counter the cold weather, but the power outage had turned the mats cold—and she didn’t have a generator to keep them running. Instead, she gathered heaps of white fabric usually used to prevent weeds from growing on garden beds, and gently tucked the sheets around the seedlings like a blanket.

“I stayed out there all night babysitting them,” Givens says. “And thankfully, they survived.”

This was just one of the extreme weather events that threatened Givens’ farm in the past several years. From extreme hot temperatures that “frizzled” crops to a week of heavy smoke that kept staff from working outdoors, the effects of climate change have fundamentally restructured the work of an urban farmer in Portland, a city known for its sustainable agriculture and food scene.

The unexpected temperature swings have forced farmers like Givens to get creative—whether that’s a hasty plan to babysit frozen seedlings or an investment in a new rainwater collection system—as they try to meet the needs of restaurants and markets that depend on their local produce. Yet those adaptation methods come with high costs, educational learning curves, and emotional tolls. In the face of rollercoaster climate patterns, the future of Portland’s urban farms doesn’t only rely on new weatherization tools; it also rests on their community’s willingness to adapt alongside them.

For Lily Klimaszewski, co-owner of Lil' Starts urban farm and plant nursery, the past few years’ weather trends have scuttled something her farm had taken for granted: predictability. Lil’ Starts leases land in both Portland’s East Columbia neighborhood and the outskirts of Gresham.

“Our general understanding of how crops respond to seasons changes every year now,” says Klimaszewski. “We don’t have a handle on how that works anymore. Before we’d have expectations on what seasons would be cooler, wetter, or hotter. Now it’s all over the place.”

In recent years, she’s seen hotter days accelerate the amount of time it takes for a plant to reach maturity, effectively shrinking the window of time she can sell produce through community support agriculture subscriptions (CSAs), farmers markets, or to local grocers.

“This year we were pulling winter squash in July,” says Klimaszewski. “It makes it really difficult to plan ahead, both for our sales and for our staff who depend on the work.”

Lil’ Starts is one of 17 agriculture businesses that lease land from Headwaters Farms, a 60-acre property in southeast Gresham run by the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District (EMSWCD). The EMSWCD is a government program created to address local natural resource concerns, including the ability to help small farms get a start on sustainably managed land. Headwaters serves as an incubator program for new farms by providing affordable leases that come with access to farm equipment, office space, irrigation, and workshops on sustainable agriculture practices.

“We’re a community farm, and we depend on the wisdom of our community,” says Hoover. “We’re learning and inviting people to learn with us at the same time. I’m not a scientist. But I know how to listen and bring people together.”

Climate change has also impacted how Headwaters’ management addresses its work.

“It feels like it’s all come to a head in the last year or two,” says Rowan Steele, who’s worked as Headwaters Farms’ manager for a decade. Much of his work centers on maintaining a sustainable environment in and around the property: one that encourages pollinators, maintains creek habitats, and keeps soil healthy.

“We’re doing the things we can to create healthiest ecosystems and natural resource processes,” says Steele. “Despite most of it being out of our control.”

This last year, Steele says, he watched the property’s well nearly run dry due to drought impacting the groundwater levels. It inspired him to bring out a consultant with Oregon State University's (OSU) Dry Farming Collaborative, a group of agricultural professionals who teach farmers about a technique that replaces crops’ reliance on irrigation with the moisture retained in the soil during prior rainy seasons.

“Dry farming has a lot of promise,” says Steele. “But it’s hard to do diversified mixed veggies without irrigation, which is what a lot of our small farms focus on.”

Unlike large-scale agriculture, smaller urban farms rarely focus on just one crop output. Instead, urban farms grow a variety of produce to appeal to farmers market shoppers and restaurants seeking local produce.

It’s because of these diversified farms that Steele believes they can survive climate-related challenges to come.

“Oregon’s small farm community is pretty dynamic, and there’s a lot of resilience within that diversity,” says Steele. “You might lose a crop to a fire, or maybe smoke blocks the sun for months and ruins a crop. But maybe if one crop doesn’t do well, your lettuce or brassicas thrive. I do think resilience is going to get them through.”

Steele is also conscious about how Headwaters Farms could be contributing to climate change. The farm has replaced a “gas-guzzling” farm truck with an electric utility vehicle, and is hoping to purchase an electric tractor in the near future. The investments are paying off. In 2019, Headwaters won a grant from Portland General Electric to install a photovoltaic system, which transforms solar power into electricity. In its first year of production, the system generated enough power to offset around 90 percent of the farm’s annual electricity consumption.

“It’s the one upside of more sunny days,” says Steele. “It means more energy for us.”

“Our general understanding of how crops respond to seasons changes every year now,” says Klimaszewski. “We don’t have a handle on how that works anymore. Before we’d have expectations on what seasons would be cooler, wetter, or hotter. Now it’s all over the place.”

Givens of Side Yard Farm is also considering making bigger investments to mitigate the threats of climate change. Much of her thinking is driven by cost.

After racking up a $3,000 water bill from the City of Portland over the course of 2021’s three hottest months, Givens knew something needed to change.

“We’re looking into buying rainwater storage, like a cistern,” she says. “I’d like to save up money to have those ready for next year.”

She realizes not all small farms have the community support or finances required to afford these solutions to an unpredictable climate. That’s partially why Givens applied to join a new US Department of Agriculture (USDA) advisory committee on urban agriculture. She was accepted into the committee earlier this year.

“I’m glad the USDA is paying attention to farmers like us, and giving us a space to share our experiences,” says Givens. “Hopefully this will result in getting more grants to implement infrastructure urban farms might need.”

That infrastructure could look like rainwater cisterns, shade structures for exposed crops, and fire resistant buildings.

Lack of shade has become an issue for Malcolm Hoover and Mirabai Collins, founders of Black Futures Farm in Portland’s Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood. While the farm is only two years old, both farmers have noticed how Portland’s intensely hot summer days have impacted their crops. Hoover says that for Black Futures Farm, a nonprofit centered on creating food sovereignty for the Black community, the most valuable resource is knowledge.

“We’re a community farm, and we depend on the wisdom of our community,” says Hoover. “We’re learning and inviting people to learn with us at the same time. I’m not a scientist. But I know how to listen and bring people together.”

Black Futures has been partnering with other farms and OSU’s agriculture department to learn different ways their urban farm can adapt to climate instability. Collins says the farm also plans on experimenting with dry farming in the coming season.

“Our strategy relies on partnerships,” says Collins. “And we’ve found tremendous support in Portland’s farming community.”

Community support is a common thread in what keeps Portland’s small farms hopeful despite the future uncertainties promised by a changing climate. Klimaszewski says that, when Lil’ Starts’ produce output was limited by the summer’s drought, the local restaurants and markets they sell to—like Grand Central Bakery and Campana—didn’t raise alarm.

“They’re small businesses like us, and they fully get what it takes to operate,” says Klimaszewski. “And it’s a risk they’re willing to take, since they’re consciously making the decision to support us over larger farms.”

She’s seen the same commitment with members of the public who buy CSAs and purchase produce from Lil’ Starts’ farmers market stand. “It shows that people not only want to buy sustainable produce, but also local produce,” says Klimaszewski. “It’s a reflection of our community’s commitment to fighting climate change.”

Klimaszewski knows that supporting urban farms during a climate crisis can be a luxury. For instance, Lil’ Starts has to raise prices on its produce when climate limits their output, which [loses us] some customers.

“It’s difficult because a lot of people do understand what we’re going through,” says Klimaszewski, “but that doesn’t always mean they have the finances to pay more for their produce.”

She’s grateful that local markets have recently allowed customers to pay for produce using SNAP benefits, and that some local food pantries have been able to purchase produce from Lil’ Starts to give away to people in need for free.

Givens has also found hope in the community when Side Yard has struggled due to climate events. In late summer 2020, the farm had to cancel their CSA deliveries following the week that blanketed Portland in heavy wildfire smoke, because staff were unable to work outside to harvest produce. CSA deliveries were back on the following week, but Givens gave buyers an option to either take home their produce as usual or donate it to victims of the wildfires. Every single one of their customers chose to donate.

“Portland is such a special place,” says Givens. “Our community has seen us through a lot of shit, and it’s because of them that we’re still here. We’re all going through this together.”