As Drought Remains, Farmers Explore Options

The Recorder, November 2, 2016, by Richie Davis

The 2.23 inches of rainfall in October — added to just under 6 inches combined for September and August — have provided scant relief from drought conditions in Massachusetts, especially for farmers.

A large portion of southern and eastern Franklin County is still suffering “extreme drought” conditions, with the remainder in “severe drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The outlook is for the drought to persist through at least the end of January for most of southern New England.

The last time that Greenfield received more than 3 inches of precipitation in any one month was in December 2015, according to weather statistics maintained by The Recorder.

The New England Farmers Union on Tuesday appealed to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to aid farmers in the region, highlighting what it called “extensive losses to crop and pasture lands.

“Some of these farms are on shallow wells they’ve been using for generations that have never dried up, and they’ve dried up now. It’s disconcerting,” said James Newland, USDA’s Farm Service Agency’s Franklin County executive director. His Greenfield office has been fielding “a lot of interest” in three FSA cost-share programs to help pay for drilling new wells for livestock, transporting water to their animals or for recovering losses to their yields.

Newland said that especially in portions of east county, where rainfall was in shorter supply, and on farms with lighter soils, farmers are feeding their winter hay and corn silage to livestock that might otherwise be on pasture now.

Orange dairy farmer George Hunt said his crop of feed corn and second and third cuttings of hay were each less than half of what they normally are, and he’s grateful there’s been an inventory and that last year was a good crop.

“This year, every time I’d go by the corn, it hurt my feelings to see it suffer so,” said Hunt, who said that farmers like himself farming on marginal soil were affected more dramatically than those in the fertile soils of the valley. “We got less rain, and we’re on the kind of ground that needs a little extra.”

He has already bought some round hay bales from farmers in west county to feed his 260 cattle “because I’m afraid that when March and April approach, it’s going to be very difficult to find.”

He guessed that hay prices have gone up at least 30 percent already.

“As the snow comes and the sources of hay dry up, that’s going to creep on upward,” Hunt said.

In Shelburne, Foxbard Farm Manager Curt Benson said, “We’ve had pastures that always had water that were dry and springs that have always run that dried up.

“The second and third cuttings, there wasn’t much there,” he said, although the first was a bumper crop to help feed the farm’s black angus beef cattle.

“It’s definitely very, dry,” he said. “I’ve never seen it this dry. We’ve had enough moisture with dew and a little bit of rain just to keep the grass green. But there’s nothing down deep as far as water is concerned. We’ve been feeding hay for the last three months, just because the pastures are so low. So of course that takes away our winter supply of feed. We need some moisture, that’s for sure.”

Instead of keeping 10 of his yearling heifers, as he usually does for replacement stock, Mark Fellows of Warwick’s Chase Hill Farm said he sold off seven this year over concerns about hay supplies. And he bought organic hay in early July as a precaution when he realized the grass wasn’t growing, before the price began to rise.

“This is the driest I’ve ever seen it,” said Fellows, who’s been farming there for 30 years. “The water table is still way down, because our house well went dry last month and hasn’t come back yet. There’s been just enough rain off and on to keep the grass growing for the pastures.”

Instead of trying to get a second cutting of hay, he allowed the cattle to graze, thinking, “I can buy hay, but I can’t buy grazing grass,” he said, figuring he has maybe another month’s worth of grazing if it doesn’t snow.

The drought has affected more than just livestock farmers, of course.

Ryan Voiland of Red Fire Farm in Montague and Granby called the drought “pretty severe,” contributing in large part to a season that he says wasn’t profitable — because of additional labor needed to replant dried-out crops and to install and move irrigation equipment, as well as to buy that equipment and to pay for fuel to pump water from the river.

“It was a a more expensive year to grow vegetables,” he said. With some varieties of radishes and cilantro, as with some other crops, yields were reduced, while carrots and other crops required re-seeding and planting more acreage, and there were shortages of lettuce and spinach.

“There were some fields where we wouldn’t have had a crop if we didn’t water,” Voiland said, adding that he’s heard from other growers who were also hard-hit, and that his top soil management techniques as well as the support of his CSA members were important in helping to get through the season.

New England Farmers Union President Roger Noonan, in his letter to Vilsack, wrote, “Many farmers in New England have fallen through the safety net during the historic drought of 2016, and many more producers remain at risk. Farmers in New England have experienced widespread losses of crops and pastures and water shortages in reservoirs, streams and wells. Dairy producers in New England have been hit particularly hard and are struggling to cope with the perfect storm of low milk prices and the severe drought, which has crippled forage and feed production.”

He called on Vilsack to take action to help mitigate drought impact and help farmers through steps including a reduction in FSA’s emergency loan program rate and targeting aid toward conservation practices, such as soil management, that reduce the impact of drought.

Meanwhile, Deerfield-based Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture is providing $55,000 in loans to six farms, including Old Friends Farm and Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst and Twin Oaks Farm in Hadley.