Weathering a dry spell: Drought hits farmers, hurts crops

Staff Writer
Daily Hampshire Gazette
Published: 9/18/2020 3:35:25 PM
Modified: 9/18/2020 3:35:11 PM

GRANBY — At Red Fire Farm, there are often years when workers “barely get the irrigation equipment out,” said co-owner Ryan Voiland. But this year, with much of the state and nearly all of Hampshire County under a moderate drought, Red Fire undertook an irrigation project each week.

Red Fire, which has locations in Granby and Montague, is just one of various farms that have needed to step up labor and investments in order to compensate for the lack of rainfall in the region summer.

In addition to increasing in frequency, Red Fire Farm’s irrigation projects were sometimes “very intense” and hard to keep up with as plants wilted, Voiland said. To meet new irrigation needs, the farm had to spend around $30,000 on new equipment and hire additional workers to meet the labor demands, which Voiland noted are among the most physically intense tasks on the farm due to the heavy weight of the irrigation equipment.

In the end, “we got things done, we got things irrigated, and we saw pretty good crops out during the summer,” Voiland said, noting that, thanks to the extra efforts, the farm experienced only minor crop losses.

The farm weathered “a lot of damage” during the region’s last drought in 2016, Voiland said, and was better prepared to compensate for this year’s dry weather.

Still, “this summer was certainly the driest one in recent memory,” he said, and dry conditions started particularly early in the season.

And with an unseasonably early frost possible over the coming weekend, farms face another challenge. At Red Fire, workers will work to harvest frost-sensitive winter squash crops before Friday, Voiland said, and may need to take extra precautions to protect crops that cannot be harvested before the weekend.

In Hadley, Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery at Longview Farm lost nearly a quarter of its corn crop this year due to the drought, according to Denise Barstow, marketing and education manager at the farm. Barstow’s relies on its self-grown corn to feed its cows.

The crops did begin to grow, Barstow said, but not tall enough or with enough ears of corn on about a quarter of its stalks. The farm feeds all of its cows using its own corn in order to ensure feed quality and nutritional value, Barstow said, and the loss of crops was “a really big blow.”

To compensate, the farm purchased 53 acres of corn from neighboring farmers the Parsons family and Mapleline Farm to make it through to the next season.

Otherwise, Barstow said, “our cows wouldn’t have the feed that they needed, so obviously that’s not an option.” The self-grown corn is “really the most control that we have over the quality of the milk,” she added.

Climate change a factor
Most vegetable and dairy farms in the area will experience similar challenges due to the drought, said Claire Morenon, communications manager at the Deerfield-based Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture organization. As a result, farms must “spend a lot more time and a lot more labor costs on irrigating.”

Orchards tend to be less affected, Morenon said, with a main effect of the dry weather being that the fruits are sweeter and smaller.

Still, the drought can cause issues even for crops that are usually not as affected. At Quonquont Farm in Whately, for example, peach picking had to be halted after just two days, said farm manager Leslie Harris. Due to the dry conditions, birds flocked to the fruits for their moisture and pecked away.

The farm’s apple crop has not been as affected due to the sheer amount available, Harris said; Quonquont has just 200 peach trees, compared to thousands of apple trees.

The orchards are not irrigated, and workers have needed to manually water the younger trees. Some of this work is also done during non-drought years, Harris said, but “this season has just been, every single week, the trees need to be watered.”

Older trees typically hold up well during dry conditions, though Harris has some concerns that the drought could affect them later down the line.

“They’re got a lot of other pressures,” Harris said, such as disease, “and when they’re under other pressures, they succumb to those.”

Brad Morse, owner of Outlook Farm in Westhampton, said that the season “did get pretty dry,” but that most of the farm’s fruit trees are old enough that the dry conditions do not have a significant impact.

“It might have affected pumpkins some — more so in the ripening process than not growing,” he said. But “most of the tree fruits it doesn’t hurt that much. They’re plenty big enough.”

David Boutt, a hydrogeologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the drought began at a particularly poor time for farmers.

“Because the precipitation deficit that we’ve had has coincided with the growing season, it’s been a very difficult and challenging growing season” for farmers, he said, especially for smaller farms without irrigation systems and for those that grow water-intensive crops such as corn.

And even if rain levels begin to rise, Boutt said, the region may feel the effects of the drought into next year.

“The soils are so dry right now that any new precipitation will come in and fill the soil with water,” he said, “and that has to happen before the water can move to streams and move to the groundwater table.”

Recent droughts and rain patterns also point to a worrying trend for the world’s climate, Boutt said. The period preceding the 2016 drought was “one of the wettest periods that we’ve seen in our almost 200-year record, and now we’re going to the other extreme.”

“I think what we’re seeing, in terms of the weather patterns that have given rise to the newest deficit, is definitely attributable to climate change.”

Read the article from the Daily Hampshire Gazette here

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