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Serving: East

Maine farmers feel brunt of New England drought

Potato harvest m.czosnek/Getty Images
DRY POTATOES: Most of Maine’s potato production is centered in Aroostook County in the far north of the state, which USDA recently designated as a drought disaster area along with Penobscot, Piscataquis, Somerset and Washington counties.
Several programs from USDA are available to help area farmers.

About 14 inches of rain are needed to grow a good potato crop in Maine. Only 7 inches fell this summer, meaning less potatoes coming off Aroostook County fields.

“A recent Potato Market News is predicting from test digs that our yield will be 80% of the five-year average,” says Steve Johnson, crops specialist with University of Maine Extension. “I think figure the reduction may be in the area of 10% to 15%, not 20%. But the overall potato harvest yield from Maine will be lower than the average.”

It was a hot, dry summer across most of New England, but Maine farmers are among those seeing the worst impacts.

Most of the state’s potato production is centered in Aroostook County in the far north of the state. USDA recently designated Aroostook County — along with contiguous counties Penobscot, Piscataquis, Somerset and Washington — a drought disaster area, meaning farmers are eligible for emergency loans and other assistance from the Farm Service Agency. There is an eight-month window from the time the secretarial disaster designation is declared to apply for emergency loans.

FSA emergency loans can be used to:

  • restore or replace essential property
  • pay all or part of production costs associated with the disaster year
  • pay essential family living expenses
  • reorganize the farming operation
  • refinance certain debts

Secretarial Disaster Designation is triggered for severe drought through a fast-track process when a county meets the D2 — severe — drought level, or higher, for eight consecutive weeks. As of Friday, most of the county and state were classified as severe drought while a pocket of D3 extreme drought is also in the county.

If you’re in need of hay, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension's Hay Directory has sources of hay or straw. Farmers with excess hay are encouraged to post availability with the Extension Hay Directory Form.

David Lavway, executive director of USDA’s Maine FSA office, says the following programs are also open to farmers if they need assistance:

Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program. This provides financial assistance to producers of uninsurable crops when low yields, loss of inventory or prevented planting occur due to natural disasters including qualifying drought (includes native grass for grazing).

Livestock Forage Disaster Program. Provides compensation to eligible livestock producers who suffered grazing losses for covered livestock due to drought.   

Livestock Indemnity Program. Offers payments to eligible producers for livestock death losses in excess of normal mortality due to adverse weather. Drought is not an eligible adverse weather event, except when associated with anthrax, a condition that occurs because of drought and directly results in the death of eligible livestock.  

Tree Assistance Program. Provides aid eligible orchardists and nursery tree growers for qualifying tree, shrub and vine losses due to natural disasters, including drought.

Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program. Provides emergency relief for losses due to feed or water shortages, disease, adverse weather, or other conditions that are not adequately addressed by other disaster programs.

Smaller blueberries

Potato growers aren’t the only ones seeing losses. It’s been a rough year for the 485 growers who specialize in low-bush, or wild, blueberries.

Lily Calderwood, state wild blueberry Extension specialist, says growers were hit with three challenges: First, a late frost during bloom that damaged much of the crop. Second was the drought, which was especially damaging during harvest when blueberries really need rain. And third was the heat.

Harvest wrapped up in late August with smaller-than-usual and shriveled berries coming off fields. An official estimate of damage isn’t available yet, but based on conversations she’s had with growers, Calderwood says the damage was extensive.

“These droughts have happened before, and our farmers are very resilient and will keep at it and will keep doing it. Compared to other years, though, it was a hard year because of multiple factors," she says.

About 36,000 acres of low-bush blueberries are grown in the state. Close to 90% of the crop goes to frozen storage and ends up in baked goods, yogurts and other products with a small number going for the fresh market.

Calderwood says that now is a good time for growers to apply sulfur to keep pH levels down. Blueberries love acidic soils, between 4 and 4.5 pH. The acidity is a good weed management tool for growers, and sulfur applications are usually done in fall or early spring. Timing of sulfur application is crucial. If applied when leaves are frozen or wet, this can burn the plants, she says.

Mowing and even burning fields — more common for organic growers — are also common pest and weed management tools. Wild blueberries are unique in that they grow in large, wild fields of well-drained soils and don’t get any taller than 10 inches.

To manage pests, including blueberry maggot, growers put fields on a two-year rotation where half the field is in production and half the field is dormant. The dormant fields are mowed, she says, in order to starve the blueberry maggots of their food source and keep their numbers down. It’s also a good pruning tool.

Even with this year’s struggles, Calderwood says the low-bush blueberry market is growing, in part because it can be used in many products and it’s considered a healthy fruit, more healthy than high-bush blueberries that grow in New Jersey.

Parched in Vermont

At Sweetland Farm in Norwich, Vt., a diversified farm with vegetables and pasture-raised livestock and poultry, there was virtually no rain after first cutting hay in mid-June through late September.

“The most drastic problem that we saw resulting from the drought was a reduced crop of second-cut hay. Because it didn't rain after the first cut, our fields dried out and did not grow back the way they usually do. Some of the driest fields turned brown and crispy,” says Norah Lake, farm owner. “Though we were eventually able to bale a second cut, we made just over half the number of bales that we did last year, even though we added new acreage. Last fall we used the no-till seeder from the conservation district to over-seed timothy and orchardgrass into our hayfields, and I suspect that most of the new plants did not make it through the drought.

“Our pastures have also been very slow to regrow, and we are having to get creative about where to put the horses out to graze.”

Dryer, hotter summers are becoming more frequent in Vermont, she says, so she’s trying to be proactive in order to keep farming.

“I suspect that variable weather will be the new normal, and we are making investments to be able to meet whatever Mother Nature throws at us. Expanded irrigation ponds and improved sprinklers and drip for dry years, swales and French drains for wet ones,” she says. “Increased high-tunnel growing area for cold years, large swaths of shade cloth and bolt-resistant varieties for hot ones.

“There are obviously many costs associated with preparing for so much variability, and we really appreciate any cost-share programs that the state and the USDA can offer to help offset the requirements of this new normal.”

Laura Johnson, agronomy Extension specialist with University of Vermont Extension, says the dry summer drastically cut hay production.

“The real struggle was perennial forages, like hay. Yields were way down. One organic farm I work with is having to truck in an additional $15,000 to $20,000 worth of hay for his 69 milkers, some coming from Vermont but most of it coming in from Canada,” Johnson says. “Some conventional farms interseeded annual forages, like sorghum, into perennial forage stands to make up for the lack of growth in the cool-season grasses.

“There is usually a summer slump period, but this year hay fields were really down in production and some totally brown. Annuals, like sorghum, do really well in hot, dry weather.”

Producers experiencing drought related losses should contact their local FSA Office. A list of local offices is available online.

Additional information on these programs can be obtained by visiting fsa.usda.gov/disaster.

Harlow writes from Vermont.

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