Recent Rain a Salve for Farmers

The Recorder, August 4, 2016, by Andy Castillo

“It’s the first significant rain we’ve had in a while,” said Chipper Sullivan, wholesale manager for Atlas Farm, about recent rainfall last weekend. “For the first time in months, we haven’t had to irrigate. And it has cooled off a bit. I expect we’ll benefit.”

Starting last Friday and continuing into Monday, rain swept through the region, bringing relief to the parched soil and rejuvenating thirsty crops, which have suffered from the effects of this year’s drought.

“Right at the moment, I’m optimistic. It sure felt good to have a little rain,” said Ann Barker, owner of Quonquont Farm in Whately. “As far as the apples go, we’re definitely behind on rain. I’m not sure how that will affect the taste, but they seem to be hanging on.”

The drought has hit the farm particularly hard this year, after the farm’s entire peach crop was wiped out following the mild winter (along with many other peach crops across New England).

Forced to Irrigate

Because of the drought, vegetable farmers have been forced to irrigate for much of the growing season this year instead of tending crops as they ordinarily would.

“The rain came at a key time for us,” agreed Mike Wissemann, owner of Warner Farm in Sunderland. “We had exhausted our pond irrigating and were beginning to get to a critical stage in the growth of several crops.”

Last weekend provided workers the chance to take a break from irrigating and do other essential farm duties, such as putting spring fields to bed by planting cover crops, weeding and planting for the fall.

“The rain also frees us up to get some crop care done that was being neglected because we were so busy moving pipe and working on watering issues,” Wissemann continued, adding that the relief from the drought should have a lasting impact.

As welcome as the precipitation is to local farmers, some crops simply can’t be saved at this point. Kelly Coleman, program director at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, said hay fields especially have suffered without rain, forcing farms that own cattle to purchase more feed than usual.

According to rainfall statistics gathered in Sunderland by the National Weather Service, over the past few months, rainfall has been less than half of what it usually is for this time of the year. It has been so bad in this region that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has labeled it a severe drought.

“We had a drought from June through August — that’s the main growing season for a lot of our crops,” said Katie Campbell Nelson, a vegetable specialist at UMass Extension.

Thriving Insects

She added that a side effect has been an unusually active and numerous insect population. The weather has shortened insect life cycles. As a result, insects such as thrips and flea beetles, have produced more offspring than usual.

“Insect pests that are endemic to our area have been particularly hard to manage,” she said, noting that although it has been a rough season so far, precipitation came at the right time.

“It came just in time for a lot people,” she continued. “The rain we just had this past weekend literally washed thrips off of onions and cleaned them up for harvest.”

Coleman said it’s important for community members to support farmers, because their survival in some cases depends on the community — and not just locally.

Elsewhere in the state, farmers are still waiting for rain.

“South of Boston area, they still have nothing,” Nelson added. “Not all the farmers in our state were as lucky as we were.”