Drought Puts Squeeze on Valley Farmers

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 28, 2016, by Jack Suntrup.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 28, 2016, by Jack Suntrup

Farmer fortunes are tied to the elements. Too much rain or too little can have the same effect — a spoiled growing season.

Much of New England has been snared in drought conditions since April. The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center is forecasting that the drought could last until at least the end of February.

Many farmers are coming to believe wild weather — months without significant rain, or days when the sky spills all at once, for example — is symptomatic of climate change, an unpredictable “new normal” they’ll have to face.

“Climate change is here,” said Linda Kingsley, co-owner of Twin Oaks Farm in Hadley. “And we have to adapt to it.”

Kingsley and Edwin Matuszko, who have grown vegetables together in the Pioneer Valley since 1979, will remember the 2016 growing season as the year 80 percent of their cabbage crop rotted and their pepper haul couldn’t be sold.

“Really, it would grow softball size, sit there, and rot,” Kingsley said of the cabbage.

The National Weather Service recorded below average rainfall in the summer months, and that has continued into autumn, said Leonore Correia, a weather service meteorologist in Taunton.

In Amherst, 3.4 inches of rain fell in September, below the 4.19-inch average. In October, 2.88 inches fell, short of the 4.64-inch average. And through Wednesday in November, the total was still below average, with rainfall tallying up to 1.41 inches, below the 2.98-inch average through that point in the month.

Meanwhile, as of Wednesday, the Quabbin Reservoir was 79.4 percent full, dipping into the “below normal” classification — 80 percent full — for the first time this year, said Ria Convery of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. The reservoir supplies water to Boston and surrounding communities.

Even when it did rain over the summer, Matuszko and Kingsley still said they couldn’t catch a break.

“We had high temperatures, bright sunshine, and breezy days,” Matuszko said. “Sometimes all three at once. So anytime you would get rain, by 11 o’clock the next morning … whatever moisture we could glean from that was gone.”

Because the two sell wholesale, they had a harder time selling than farmers who participate in community supported agriculture programs or who operate their own farmstands, they said. They said grocery suppliers sought produce elsewhere upon hearing of the drought.

That meant a whole summer’s worth of peppers was all for naught.

“We walked away from probably 1,000 boxes of peppers,” Matuszko said. “In a normal year, that would be a $12, $14, $16 a box. … If they wanted it (this year), we got a return of $3 to $8 a box.

“At that point, we were losing money,” Kingsley said.

The two farmers spent more on labor and irrigation to get what they could across the finish line. The couple still might turn a profit this year, but “it’s just real tight” Kingsley said.

Many towns imposed restrictions on water use over the some, and many of them are still in place. Hadley still prohibits car washing and the use of automatic sprinklers. Amherst also has water restrictions in effect.

Emergency Loans

Dairy farmers were also hit this year — with a combination of high hay prices, because of the drought, and low milk prices.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Roger Noonan, president of the New England Farmers Union.

At Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, co-owner Jeremy Barber-Plotkin on Tuesday was unrolling a giant spool of plastic to drape over metal hoops to shelter spinach, arugula and other greens from the coming colder conditions.

Barber-Plotkin had to depend on two loans this year to get him over this drought hump: a $10,000 no-interest loan from the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture group, and another $10,000 loan with 3 percent interest.

Simple Gifts was one of six farms — including Twin Oaks in Hadley — that CISA pledged no-interest loans to in recent weeks, totaling $55,000, from its Emergency Farm Fund. The group made $43,000 in loans in September, too, to orchards affected by February’s cold snap.

In periods of less-than-ideal growing conditions, such programs, and crop insurance, become all the more important. Amid continuing drought conditions, the New England Farmers Union sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asking the agency to direct resources to help farmers navigate the crop insurance process, invest in soil conservation and water irrigation projects, and reduce the interest rate on Farm Service Agency emergency loans.

Noonan said last week he had yet to hear back from the Department of Agriculture. An email to the agency media account went unanswered last week.

Different Future

Beyond crop insurance and low-interest loans, farmers are adjusting in other ways to climate change. Fine-tuning budgets, soil conservation and irrigation projects are all in the mix.

Despite the unpredictability, a strange advantage for farmers in the future could be an earlier growing season for some crops. Warmer springs can mean being able to plant earlier in some cases, Noonan said.

“Farmers are highly adaptive,” said Noonan, who farms vegetables himself at Middle Branch Farm in New Boston, N.H. “We’ve got to play the cards we’re dealt in any given year.

“Being first to market is what it’s all about in the vegetable business,” he said.

Jack Suntrup can be reached at