Wetter weather weighing on Pioneer Valley farmers

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 12, 2018, by Greta Jochem

Michael Docter has been farming for 28 years. His farm in Hadley, Winter Moon Roots, grows carrots, beets, radishes and turnips. But this year — one of the wettest on record — has been rough.

“Some of our yields were well under half of what they should have been,” he said. In some cases, yields were a third of what he expected.

“I’ve never had a year like this, never.”

For the previous eight years at Teddy C. Smiarowski Farm in Hatfield, yields and sales grew. However, similar to Winter Moon Roots farm, this year was challenging, said John Smiarowski and Bernie Smiarowski, two of the four brothers who are co-owners of the farm named after their father who bought it in the 1950s.

Their final numbers for this year aren’t in yet, but Bernie Smiarowski said compared to previous years, this is the worst.

The farmers both point to the same reason: rain, lots and lots of rain.

This year has been one of the rainiest throughout some areas of New England and western Massachusetts.

High precipitation, Docter and the Smiarowski brothers explained, can lead to disease, soil erosion and conditions that can damage their farming equipment.

“Old timers would say you lose your shirt in a dry year and lose your farm in a wet year,” Bernie Smiarowski said.

It’s been the second rainiest year to date — measured from January through November — since 1836 in Amherst, when record began being kept. Fifty-nine inches of rain fell, said Michael Rawlins, associate director of University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Climate System Research Center. The only wetter January through November period was 1888, when 64 inches fell, Rawlins said.

This fits into a broader trend — much of the Northeast has seen well above average precipitation so far this year, and in some cases, record-breaking levels, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In the fall specifically, many areas around the Northeast were inundated. Ten major climate measuring sites in the Northeast had their rainiest fall — measured from September through November — on record, with a 200 percent increase in precipitation in some cases, according to Cornell University’s Northeast Regional Climate Center. Record-breaking sites included Philadelphia, Baltimore, Bridgeport and Atlantic City.

“Heavy precipitation is becoming more intense and more frequent across most of the United States. Particularly in the Northeast … These trends are projected to increase in the future,” Rawlins said.

Rawlins pointed to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report written by U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). The group is required to put out a report every four years to give to Congress. Its most recent report, released in late November, projects the Northeast could see an increase in precipitation by the end of the century and a spike in intense rainfall events.

Hartford, Connecticut, for example, saw 21 days between January through November in which an inch or more of rain fell, breaking its previous record for the same time period, Rawlins said.

The most recent National Climate Assessment does predict warmer temperatures will lengthen the growing season in the Northeast, which will benefit the agricultural industry. But it also says that high rainfall is a “leading cause of crop loss” in the region.

Though there’s variation each year, there’s an increasing trend upwards in precipitation, Rawlins said.

In the Northeast, precipitation has increased by eight percent since 1991, in comparison to temperatures between 1901 and 1960. Precipitation is projected to increase in the Northern U.S. and decrease in the Southwest. The 2014 National Climate Assessment attributes the shift in the Northern U.S. to a warmer atmosphere that can hold more water and changes in weather patterns.

Next year could be drier than normal, but the overall trend in precipitation over time in the Northeast is increasing, Rawlins explained.

“What we’ve seen is an exclamation point this year on a trend toward a wetter climate,” he explained.

“Climate change is not some far distance threat,” he said, “we are seeing the impacts of climate change before our very eyes.”

Local impacts

The precipitation has also made the water table high, according to UMass hydrogeology researcher David Boutt. This could create issues in the spring, he said. “It is likely that basement flooding will be a problem for many homeowners, and there is also the potential for septic system failures,” he said in a press release.

The wet conditions were so challenging for farmers like Docter and the Smiarowskis that Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) opened its Emergency Farm Fund — a quick response, no interest loan program to tide farmers over until they get crop insurance cash or other aid. It’s been used a handful of times since the fund started in 2011 to provide relief after Hurricane Irene, said Claire Morenon, CISA communications manager and Gazette columnist.

“This year,” she said, “we were hearing from so many farmers about the impacts from the super wet summer so we decided to open it because of that.” Applications for funding are closed now though, she noted.

Morenon has also been hearing from farmers that their historical knowledge of farming — such as when the first and last frost date are — hasn’t been as reliable. “It feels like that doesn’t provide them with as much guidance as it had,” she said.

That was true for Bernie Smiarowski. He said his Farmer’s Almanac underestimated the rain they would get. “They weren’t even close,” he said.

Torrential rain washed away soil covering potatoes at the Smiarowski farm, exposing them to sunlight and causing green potatoes to grow, Bernie said.

Muddy conditions also made farming difficult. “We couldn’t harvest a lot of days,” Bernie said, explaining that mud puts a strain on the machinery the farm uses to harvest.

Excess moisture created conditions ripe for disease, Docter said. “The high intensity downpours are the ones that cause the most damage because they splash and they create diseases,” Docter explained. “They create muddy wet conditions and diseases are able to multiply.”

It’s just an unlucky, bad year, the Smiarowski brothers said. They don’t think this is related to climate change, and Bernie Smiarowski thought it could be due to normal fluctuating climate, like El Niño and La Niña effects, warm and cold phases linked to the ocean’s fluctuating temperature. While El Niño conditions are not currently active, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center indicates that those conditions will likely develop this winter.

Wet weather happens, Bernie Smiarowski said, pointing to massive flooding that happened back in 1936. “Someday we’ll have another massive flood like that,” he said.

But he is unsure how he feels about climate change. “It’s not like I don’t believe in it either,” he said. “The jury is out on that.”

Docter sees it differently — he views this as another example of climate change.

“We’re farmers, we see connections to climate change every single day we go outside. This is just one more example.”

“Many of us are terrified this is the new normal,” he added.

Greta Jochem can be reached at