New England Farmers Deal With Drought, Climate Change

Aug 24, 2016

This summer in the Northeast, if you happen to have had an irrigation system on your farm, your crop fields might have been just fine, or not. "We just couldn't work the land. We were so busy trying to put out irrigation pipe,” said Farmer Mike Wisseman. His motto is “Irrigation is Irritation” because pumps break and hoses kink.

Wisseman, along with his family, runs Warner Farm, located on the Connecticut River in Sunderland, Massachusetts. Wisseman said irrigation from the river can't be his primary source of water. To get water to one field, another has to go without.

“We depend on getting second crops in and we were unable to do probably 2-3 acres of sweet corn that we would have done and another planting of summer zucchini,” Wisseman said, which is usually an over-abundant crop.

Although Warner Farm is in a part of the Connecticut River Valley where soil holds water pretty well because it’s rich with silty clay left over from glacial times, Wisseman thinks his tenth-generation farm lost tens of thousands of dollars this year.

But help, or at least advice, is on the way.

“We’ve got a lot of farmers calling us, asking for some information about transitioning to NO TILL,”said  Masoud Hashemi from the school of agriculture at University of Massachusetts Amherst.  “No-till” means not plowing and it's a practice many researchers are talking about nationwide. It prevents erosion, and can make soil take on the qualities of a sponge.

In Vermont, new mandates will go into effect by the end of this year, which is meant to encourage no-till farming. It’s an attempt to keep fertilizers from getting into lakes and rivers.

According to Hashemi, no-till farming is “sustainable farming,” a term that means to grow food for people without causing environmental harm.

“How we manage the soil is the key to the sustainability of the farming system, and that it remains for generations to come,” said Hashemi.

Bill Fosher is a cattle farmer in southern New Hampshire and has lived through protracted dry spells, interrupted by heavy downpours. That’s climate change in this region, he said, and he knows farmers who wonder if this year's drought will put them out of business. Right now, some don't have enough forage in their fields to feed their animals.

“People are having to feed the hay that they were expecting to use this winter in order to get through the drought,” said Fosher

Without rain, hay fields that usually yield two or three cuttings are yielding only one. Fosher said that if it’s available, folks are going to have buy hay from farms in the mid-Atlantic and it won't be cheap to truck up.

Looking beyond this dry season, Fosher is among those pushing farmers to manage their land more proactively. For instance, “don’t graze things down to the ground,” said Fosher, and rotate animals between fields after a few days as well as leave some growth on the land. You don't want to see bare dirt because it doesn't hold water when it rains.

These annual weather patterns aren't going to change anytime soon. Mark Svoboda is a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center. He said that many farmers are already adapting to a new climate, but it's on an as-needed basis.

“So you've got this apathy when times are good, and then you panic when you're in the middle of a drought,” said Svoboda.

The satellite activated U.S. Drought Monitor, which Svoboda oversees from the University of Nebraska Lincoln, is the go-to online map this season for northeast farmers, tourism officials and governors alike. The satellites can detect if a drought is on its way. Cropland and pastures have their own drought signatures. “And these satellites can see that even before the human eye can see it,’ said Svoboda.

Advance warning is good and so is thinking ahead. According to Bill Fosher, farmers can't just wait for the rain anymore and 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,” said Fosher. Because all the processes farmers need to produce foods start with water.

Large scale irrigation in the east is not going to be an option, like in the west. Some of the new farm management methods are considered kind of "out there," Fosher said. He says next spring farmers near him may try more sustainable farming methods. 

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative. Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting