‘It’s as bad as it’s been’

‘It’s as bad as it’s been’

As Windham County farmers deal with drought and dry soil, some find workarounds with irrigation

BRATTLEBORO — While last week's rain offered a little bit of relief, Windham County is still dealing with drier-than-normal conditions.

According to the Sept. 8 report by the U.S. Drought Monitor website (droughtmonitor.unl.edu), the northwest corner of Windham County is experiencing “abnormally dry” conditions. Most of the county is at the next level, “moderate drought,” and the southeast towns of Halifax, Guilford, and Vernon are experiencing “severe drought.”

All of Vermont has experienced precipitation shortfalls since the spring, and drier-than-normal conditions are expected to continue for the next few weeks in Windham County.

But farmers, used to dealing with weather extremes from one growing season to the next, continue to find ways to cope with whatever Mother Nature throws at them.

University of Vermont Extension vegetable and berry specialist Vern Grubinger goes so far as to say that drier rather than wetter conditions can even be viewed as something of a silver lining.

“There's an upside to this, and a saying: 'You can put water on, but you can't take it off,'” Grubinger says.

“Abnormally dry” conditions, according to the Drought Monitor website, generally cause stunted crop growth, elevated danger of ground fires and wildfires, brown lawns, and wilted gardens.

“Moderate” drought requires increased use of irrigation. Hay and grain yields, especially later-season yields, are usually lower than normal. Honey production also declines.

“Severe” drought conditions affect specialty crops in both yield and fruit size. Producers must also feed cattle when fields are brown and hay prices rise. In addition, outdoor burn warnings are issued, and poor air quality exists.

How one farmer planned ahead

At High Meadows Farm in Westminster, Howard Prussack runs the state's oldest organic and flower farm. And he does it with plenty of irrigation.

“It could be drier,” says Prussack, who became Vermont's first certified organic farmer in 1976. “We did get an inch of rain since June, but it's as bad as it's been.”

Prussack has three wells - two of which are currently dry - and he's having to carefully irrigate from the third.

“I prepared for this, specifically for this year, and earlier this summer I added another 1,800 gallons of water storage capacity,” he says. “It was great timing because when it hit, I was ready. It's been a godsend, giving us an extra four hours a day of irrigation time.”

How did he know to add that extra water storage?

“Oh, the old farmer in me,” he says with a laugh. “I read the signs, I split a rock, I counted the rings.”

But the lessons from farming for many years have offered him the real clues he needed.

“Last year was the wettest year, and our winter squash really suffered,” Prussack says. “We had a great year, though. The type of farming we do allows us to survive the wet and the dry years.”

“The system works for me, and we prepare for both really wet and dry years, but the extremes are getting more-so,” he continues. “I knew it would be a dry year based on last year. Once you get into a dry period, it usually stays that way, and I saw it happening in June.

“So we got through it,” Prussack says.

“Generally, most crops don't want to be wet,” he says, describing the farm's drip irrigation, which uses 10 percent of the water of an overhead irrigation system.

“So we're really efficient,” Prussack notes. “Plus, crops are on black plastic mulch - acres of it - and that saves the water for the crops. It makes all the difference in the world.”

With High Meadows Farm being what Prussack calls “an important cog in the wheel of life around here,” he says he counts on “really bountiful crops, because we're trying to feed people and we employ people.”

High Meadows Farm supplies the Hannaford supermarket chain; co-ops from Northampton, Mass., to Putney and beyond; and farmers' markets. The farm also sells bedding plants widely in New England during the growing season.

To ensure the most bountiful crop, Prussack has built up high levels of organic matter in the soil, which also helps. His is a “whole-farm integrated system,” he says, “and it works.”

“I know farmers all over New England - if not the country - that had to throw in the towel, but we haven't lost one crop yet,” he says, summing up the needed approach as “make a plan, say what you're going to do, and do it.”

A specialist's view

Grubinger underscores that the majority of high-value specialty crops are irrigated. “The investment is kind of a no-brainer because there's so much expense in growing these crops and the potential return per acre is relatively small,” he says.

“It takes a lot less land to grow strawberries or lettuce or squash than to grow field corn, and the amount of money that acreage is worth is much higher,” he says.

“In my 30 years, I've seen more farmers adding irrigation as rainfall has become more erratic with the changing climate,” Grubinger notes. “The cost and effectiveness of these systems made them a better investment. Drip irrigation is really effective.”

However, Grubinger points out that paying for drip irrigation systems for crops that feed animals is “harder to justify,” as that requires bigger systems and more water.

It's a little easier for some farms, such as those next to Lake Champlain, to use such systems because a water source is at the ready.

He also said Paul Harlow, the biggest vegetable grower in Windham County, is having a good season, in large part because Harlow Farm croplands sit alongside the Connecticut River.

On the other hand, if a farmer is irrigating from a pond and drought conditions intensify, that pond could very well run dry.

Part of the potential “upside” of drier-rather-than-wetter conditions affecting vegetables and berries is that less water results in fewer diseases on the plants.

“It's the early-season moisture that's essential [for such diseases to thrive], and that was OK this year,” says Grubinger, noting there isn't as much impact on crop yield if drier conditions come later in the season.

Grubinger, too, has learned over the years, and says that for perennials, if a drought arrives late in the season, sometimes its effects show up the next year.

“The year before really affects how well they do the next year,” he says.

He also credits the fact that most of southern Vermont has been in moderate drought, not severe, with being some help, as was the Labor Day rain.

“Just an inch and a half every three or four weeks has kind of been enough to avoid a severe drought,” he says.

Grubinger points out one challenge: Pastures have been some of the most impacted areas of agriculture because they're generally not irrigated, are often on poorer soils, and are open and exposed for animals to move around in.

“The amount of grazing land has definitely been reduced for animals, and you're seeing this in hay, too,” he says. “The cuttings later in the season aren't as good.”

Another challenge is that when pastures are greatly impacted, “input costs” - the expenses for diesel fuel, fertilizer, supplies - are already high post-pandemic and are driven even higher. Hay costs rise, too.

“It's fairly localized,” Grubinger says of the drought's effect on hay.

“Eastern New England seems the worst hit, so hopefully there will be some hay, like in New York, that will be available,” he says. “It's just one more challenge, but on the produce side, a dry year is not always a bad thing.”

“We have a lot of ups and downs as far as availability, but our overall water system is better than in other places,” Grubinger observes.

He cites the effects of climate change, which are straining the Colorado River Basin water supply while bringing severe flooding in other parts of the country.

“The long-term challenges here are not as significant as what is happening out West,” Grubinger says. “It's predicted we'll continue to have more intense rainfall events and more periods of extended dry conditions, but there are tools to cope with these things - irrigation and better field drainage - and these are things farmers are addressing.”

Apple crop predictions

September means the start of apple season in New England, and all eyes are on that fall prize.

Russell Powell, who lives in Hatfield, Mass., has been executive director of the New England Apple Association almost continuously since 1998 as well as its senior writer. He publishes the blog at newenglandorchards.org, and is the author of America's Apple. He was also founding editor and publisher of the now-defunct New England Watershed magazine.

“We are seeing a lot of apples on the trees, a mild surprise given last year's heavier-than-usual crop,” Powell says, noting that often trees produce less the following year as they recover from stress.

“And apple trees are more resilient than most crops due to their deep roots and are better able to withstand drought,” he continues. “But due to the drought, there will be more small apples than usual - however, some say the flavor is more intense as a result.”

Powell says the 2022 New England fresh apple forecast of about 3.2 million 42-pound boxes (the modern equivalent of a bushel) is down about 10 percent from the five-year average of 3.5 million boxes. That means there will be plenty of apples in a wide range of varieties and sizes.

“Northern Vermont, for one, has received adequate precipitation, as has central Maine,” he reports. “Rhode Island has experienced major drought, but one of its largest orchards has seen its apples size up anyway; they attribute it to their heavier soils, which help retain moisture.”

A number of New England orchards “have ponds or streams on their property, so many have been able to irrigate some of their trees,” Powell says. “So it is a mixed bag.”

“But overall New England is looking at a fairly normal crop with more small apples than usual,” he says.

Like Maine, says Powell, most Vermont apple growers have received adequate rain, especially in the northern part of the state, and should come close to their five-year average of 400,000 boxes.

All told, Powell said the apple crop is largely on schedule and the return of cooler nights will help the apples gain their full color and flavor.

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