Dry Conditions Sour Some Farmers

Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 6th, 2016, by Richie Davis. As temperatures in the region reached into the mid 90s Wednesday, it was clear that the heat was on.

But the heat has been on for weeks for area farmers, who have been dealing with dry conditions by irrigating — if they’re lucky — more than they have in so-called normal years.

Yet where farmers have been able to irrigate, some crops — like strawberries and wheat — have been helped by this season’s dryness.

“At this point, things are definitely too dry,” said Ryan Voiland of Red Fire Farm of Montague, sitting on his tractor in 94-degree temperatures after getting up at 4 a.m. to turn off the irrigation system through some of his fields. “We’ve been irrigating and pumping water like never before and still have some fields that are suffering and we’re not keeping up with.”

Voiland said he’s been up “well into the night the last couple of nights running irrigation,” has been bringing in additional irrigation equipment over the past couple of weeks and is considering bringing in a tanker truck to feed a drip irrigation system on Greenfield Road where an onion field is beginning show a need for water to size up the crop.

“It’s been challenging for us,” said Voiland, explaining that moving around irrigation tubing and pipes often means spending time to put the system together and then turning on the pumps to find there’s a leak somewhere or it’s not running properly. “We have crews working extra for us.”

Tuesday morning’s shower — measuring somewhere between a quarter and a half inch — was badly needed, especially as there’s been no rainfall of more than an inch since June 5, with the prior major precipitation 4½ inches of snowfall April 3 and 4.

“Every little bit is helpful,” said Voiland. “That little shower probably made the difference between crops dying or not.

“At this point, we haven’t lost anything hugely dramatic, but I feel like we’re in a situation where in a matter of days if we don’t get some relief from rain, even with the irrigation efforts.”

Effects vary

For many crops, the dry weather has simply meant that crops have been growing more slowly, and conditions have varied tremendously depending on type of soil, according to Caroline Pam of The Kitchen Garden in Sunderland and Kristina Markey of Greenfield Community Farm at Just Roots.

At Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, most of the young trees have been on irrigation for the past three weeks, and the larger trees have root systems that go down deeper, said Ben Clark.

While it’s not unusual to have dry conditions for this amount of time, Clark said, “In the last two or three weeks, it’s been frustrating to have major storm fronts we thought would be coming through, but have brought less than a quarter inch of rain.”

Voiland agreed.

“The previous two storms completely missed us. It was really frustrating,” he said. “It moved to the north, to the south. It got cloudy, it got windy and it looked like it was going to do something.”

Michael Wissemann of Warner Farm in Sunderland said that although there’s a chance of showers over the next couple of days, “We really need something that comes down at about the pace it did the other day, for a good 24 hours. We need an inch, an inch and a half. We don’t need monsoons like they had in West Virginia. But we need something that just soaks in.”

It’s the berries

Wissemann, who has been irrigating several parts of his 200-acre farm, said that while some crops have been having a harder time — especially in sandier soils — other crops, like strawberries, have been doing especially well with the dryness.

“I think they do much better in a dry year,” said Wissemann, who ended his pick-your-own operation last week but is still picking berries. “It’s much easier to put water on than to take it off. The dryness enhances the flavor. They seem remarkably sweet, and a decent size.”

And while some growers lost part of their crop, especially farther south, where they were hit with a hard frost in April and into May, others have reported a great strawberry season.

“We’ve had a perfect strawberry year. We’re having a record strawberry fruiting year,” said Nathan Nourse of Nourse Farms in Whately. “We’ve shattered a record for berries picked — over 100,000 baskets, picked by 40 people in 20 days. We had the infrastructure in place to handle some of these scenarios, which are becoming more frequent and more ‘normal.’

“The half-ich of rain Tuesday was the first measurable amount since we started picking four weeks ago,” to keep disease and mold from causing problems.

Nourse, which stopped its pick-your-own operation two years ago, kept sufficient straw on its fields until late March, to prevent killing frosts and freezes from causing damage to the plants.

Thanks to continued irrigation, he said, “We’ll have berries at our tent until July 24, when we close,” and will continue to have local berries for wholesaling to Foster’s Supermarket as well as markets in Amherst and Northampton.