Area Farmers Cope with Continued Drought

Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 18th, 2016, by Jack Evans. Several months into a period of below-average precipitation, more than 99 percent of Massachusetts is seeing abnormally dry weather, with about half of Hampshire County falling under a “severe drought.”

As of a July 12 report from the United States Drought Monitor, the eastern part of the county is among 34 percent of the state in severe drought. The rest of the county is in “moderate drought” or abnormally dry weather, the monitor’s lowest drought intensity.

The National Weather Service issued a drought advisory for the Connecticut River Valley on July 8. In June, western Massachusetts saw nearly an inch less precipitation than average for the month, according to a report from the Massachusetts Water Resources Commission, and other parts of the state have been even drier.

More than 100 communities statewide have issued restrictions on non-essential water use, including Northampton, Hatfield and Belchertown.

Violators of the water ban in Northampton could face fines, but Department of Public Works Director Donna LaScaleia said none have been imposed since the ban went into effect in June.

National Weather Service meteorologist Kim Buttrick said the state would need long-lasting and widespread rainfall to end the drought. That makes getting out of a drought in the summer months a challenge, because weather this time of year typically produces only spotty thunderstorms.

“We don’t need it, but a hurricane could help alleviate a drought,” Buttrick said. “Going into the autumn, if we get a good nor’easter, that would help as well.”

Impact on farmers

Though a drought may carry the implication of harming farmers, Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, said the effects of this dry period will vary depending on the size of the farm.

Large farms often have the infrastructure to irrigate crops even in dry weather, which offers a line of defense against this weather, he said. But small farms often lack those means.

“If you’re a small farm and you’re totally dependent on what’s coming out of the sky, you’re going to face a lot more challenges,” Korman said.

The effects also differ from crop to crop, he said. In some cases, dry spells can benefit crops that face problems like molding in wet weather. Other crops may still grow but take longer to mature.

Red Fire Farm in Granby has seen those differing impacts, said Sarah Voiland, who manages the farm’s communications. Dry weather in June helped the farm’s strawberry crop, one of the plus sides of having a diverse array of crops. But the lack of water spelled trouble for its other crops.

“There’s a lot of other crops that really appreciate water, and we had to do a lot of extra work and additional costs with that to put in the labor and fuel costs to pump the water and costs of additional equipment to make sure we can get water to all of our fields,” she said.

Voiland said the farm has faced droughts before, but at different points in the year. In the summer, she said, crops aren’t as well established and need more water, making this drought more challenging.

The farm has managed to maintain most of its crops, but it lost some of its summer cabbage and cucumber transplants, and it’s looking at a gap in radishes because some did not germinate.

The drought has led Voiland and her colleagues to watch weather forecasts and hope they may catch some of those spotty thunderstorms.

“We just stare at the radar and watch those little green blobs, missing us,” she said.

And helpful weather isn’t on the immediate horizon. Thunderstorms were forecast for Monday afternoon, but the front passed largely to the north. Buttrick said next weekend could bring some thunderstorms but no significant rainfall.

For now, the forecast for the next several days looks much the same as it has in recent weeks: hot and sunny, with little or no rain to help crops that need water and the farmers that grow them.

“If it doesn’t come out of the sky,” Voiland said, “you have to do the work of the sky.”