In the Northeast, according to the USDA, about 175,000 farms produce more than $21-billion a year in food, hay and flowers. But not this year. Many fields are bone dry, with extreme drought conditions in parts of Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire and severe conditions across much of the region. The climate — and how it’s changing — has many farmers thinking about how to manage their land, their animals and available water.
Having an irrigation system on your farm doesn’t mean you escaped this summer’s drought. Mike Wissemann at Warner Farm in Sunderland, Massachusetts, knows from experience. On a hot mid-August day, Wissemann stood in the shade of barn, pointing to a a dry, unplanted field a few hundred feet away.
“Irrigation is irritation,” Wissemann said.
Pumps break. Hoses kink. “We just couldn’t work the land [because] we were so busy trying to put out irrigation pipe. We depend on getting second crops in [and] we were unable to do two to three crops of sweet corn and another planting of summer zucchini, he said.”
Warner Farm, which Wissemann runs with his family, is right on the Connecticut River in Sunderland, where glaciers thousands of years ago left behind a mix of silty clay. It’s loam-rich soil, and tends to hold water well. That can only help so much in a drought.
Irrigation from the river, Wissemann said, can’t be a primary source of water. To get hydration to one field, another has to go without. Building a larger system would be prohibitively expensive. Wissemann thinks his tenth-generation farm lost tens of thousands of dollars this year.
Help, or at least advice, is on the way, from soil and crop researchers like Masoud Hashemi at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. On a hot summer morning, Hashemi, some students, and a few new farmers have just come back in to the barn from research fields in South Deerfield. The UMass farm is picturesque, laid out between a river road and towering Mt. Sugarloaf. In this dry season, it is surprisingly green.
“We got a lot of farmers calling us, asking for some information about transitioning to no-till,” Hashemi said, referring to a land practice of leaving fields unplowed, and planting crops on top of leftover vegetative matter from preceding crops. It’s a practice researchers at many agriculture schools in the United States are preaching, to prevent soil erosion. The unturned earth can take on the qualities of a sponge.
Even some states are pushing the practice. In Vermont, new mandates go into effect by the end of the year, meant to encourage no-till farming. While the state decision is more an attempt to keep fertilizers from leaching into lakes and rivers, no-till farming, Hashemi will tell you, is “sustainable farming.” By definition, it is the Hippocratic oath of farming: grow food for people and don’t cause environmental harm doing so. It is, Hashemi said, the future.
“How we manage the soil is the key the sustainability of farming, and it remains for generations to come,” Hashemi said.
Soil is something cattle farmer Bill Fosher is also thinking about. He grazes his animals at Edgefield Farm in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, and also lived through this summer’s protracted dry spells, interrupted by heavy downpours. That’s “climate change” in the Northeast, Fosher said.
Fosher chose to sell some of his animals when he saw the way the season was going, so his bottom line is not as bad as some other nearby farmers. He said he knows farmers who wonder if this year’s drought will put them out of business. The fields don’t have enough forage with the lack of rain, and that’s causing farmers to dip into their feed-reserves.
“People are having to feed the hay that they were expecting to use this winter in order to get through the drought,” Fosher said.
Without rain, hay fields that usually yield two or three cuttings are yielding only one. Fosher said farmers will have to buy hay from farms in the Mid-Atlantic, if it’s available. It won’t be cheap to truck up.
Beyond this season’s drought, Fosher is among those pushing farmers to manage their land more proactively. For instance, don’t let animals graze fields down to the ground. Fosher said farmers need to rotate their animals between fields after a few days, and make sure to leave some growth on the land. Bare dirt isn’t good to see, Fosher said. It doesn’t hold water if rains do come.
These annual weather patterns aren’t going to change anytime soon and Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, sees many farmers already adapting to a new climate, but he said, it’s on an as-needed basis.
“You’ve got this apathy when times are good, and then you panic when you’re in the middle of a drought,” Svoboda said.
The satellite-activated U.S. Drought Monitor, which Svoboda monitors from the University of Nebraska Lincoln, is the go-to online map for farmers, tourism officials and governors alike, in the Northeast and beyond.
The satellites can detect if a drought is on its way. Cropland and pastures have their own drought signatures, Svoboda said. “And these satellites can see that even before the human eye can see it.”
Advance warning is good. So is thinking ahead, farmer Bill Fosher said. Farmers can’t just wait for the rain anymore. They need a plan. Is three months of reserve hay enough? Are farmers prepared to move their animals to find grass? It’s not going to be easy.
“Drought is a very demoralizing affliction for a farmer to face because — with drought — even if you did do everything just right, it still wouldn’t matter,” Fosher said, because all the processes farmers need to produce food start with water.
In general, large-scale irrigation in the East is not an option, like in the West, and some of the new farm management methods being encouraged by farm bureaus and educators are still considered kind of “out there.” But Fosher said he did hear that next spring, a few farmers near him may give no-till a try.