ETNA, Maine — Farmer Clayton Carter of Fail Better Farm in Etna thrust a spade into a row of carrots on a bright mid-October morning as he ticked off the ways his crops have suffered in the ongoing drought.
Winter squash, a New England staple, normally thrives on his farm, but this summer it was so dry that about half the crop wilted in the fields. He grew half as many potatoes as normal and was only able to harvest about a third of the carrots they planted. Carter pulled out a bunch of bright orange carrots, a few of which were no bigger than his index finger, despite the careful irrigation they had received over the past few months.
“They look OK, but they should be bigger,” he said. “Other than the drought, they have had ideal conditions.”
Still, Carter, who grows 2 acres of mixed vegetables on his farm, knows he is lucky. He was worried about his well, but it held up like a champ over the course of the summer, allowing him to irrigate his crops as much as his system allowed. That’s not the case just up the hill from him at Ann and Bub Carter’s house — no relation to the farmer — where their well failed, leaving them scrambling to do basic tasks such as laundry, watering the garden and even flushing the toilet.
“I’ve never seen it this dry, ever,” Ann Carter said. “Without water, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?”
Stories like this are common after the hot, dry summer of 2016, and there is still no relief in sight. The latest data from the National Drought Mitigation Center, released Thursday, Oct. 13, show that the situation is worsening, with conditions in most of the state ranging from abnormally dry in the north to extreme drought in the south. Only the most northerly portion of Aroostook County has normal precipitation conditions.
Problems persist even into fall
Along with autumn’s cooler weather and vibrant red and orange foliage comes the end of the growing season. With it, there’s a sense that farmers can relax a little about the rainfall or lack thereof. But the reckoning of the drought’s damage continues, along with concerns the continued lack of precipitation may last until winter, when the ground is frozen and it is impossible to recharge the shrunken groundwater table. Rainfall in Augusta since Jan. 1, 2016 is more than 8 inches below normal, and in the Portland area it is nearly 10 inches below normal.
“Come spring, if we don’t have a big improvement in the water situation, next summer is going to be tough, obviously,” Eric Schwibs, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said.
Dave Colson, the agricultural services director for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said the extreme dry conditions have taxed even the best-prepared farmers, the ones who already had irrigation systems in place. After a cycle of dry years in 2004 and 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped a lot of farmers dig farm ponds. Of course, he said, it promptly started raining, and those ponds were superfluous — but not this year.
“This year, people started using them, and a lot of them are pretty dried up at this point,” he said. “We’ve heard about some wells that have gone dry. That means folks are having to invest in drilling a deeper well.”
The government is likely to offer to help farmers this year, too. Once emergency drought declarations are made, it frees up grant money so affected farmers can apply for funds to pay for livestock feed and other needs.
“We’ve slowly been seeing drought declarations move up the coast,” Colson said. “But I think it’s going to be tougher in some ways on the smaller to midsized vegetable producers. It’s harder to prove your losses.”
Those farmers typically don’t carry crop insurance, and are not likely to have heavy-duty irrigation systems. What they do have for irrigation they usually rely on every few years, for shorter periods of dry conditions.
“If folks in Maine have to think about irrigating for three or four months, it’s beyond a lot of people’s capacity,” he said.
The drought, in short, may be challenging the idea that Maine could become the regional agricultural leader and even a new breadbasket for the nation. Abundant and reliable water is a big part of that idea, and right now that’s not what farmers are seeing.
“We have a list serve for beginning farmers, and there’s a number of folks asking, ‘Wow, is this the new norm? Are we going to be seeing these dry conditions into the future?’” Colson said. “I’ve been at some meetings where we talk about the potential or importance of farming in Maine because we do get more rainfall. But I have to point out, ‘When does that rain come?’ It can either come too much at times, which can affect your ability to work the soil and harvest crops. Or it doesn’t come at all, and we’re not used to seeing that.”
This summer, farmers had to make tough choices about which crops they would irrigate and which they would let wither, Colson said. Those hard choices are continuing. Many farmers who grow feed for their animals have found that their yields of hay and grain have been sharply reduced this year, and with much of the state in the same boat are having to look much further afield to purchase enough feed to get through the winter.
“We’re hearing of such general unavailability, some folks are going into Canada to get feed,” Colson said. “Or they’re selling off some livestock or not raising replacement heifers, which may come back to affect them sometime in the future.”
For farmer Clayton Carter, not all the news this season has been bad. Although some of his crops did much worse than in previous years, others did better, suffering from fewer diseases than normal. He points to the tomatoes that were still ripening on the vine, their foliage still lush and green because the lack of water meant reduced instances of leaf disease this year.
But even though his tomato crop came on like a champ and his well never failed, the drought still took a financial toll on Fail Better Farm.
“It looks like one of the shyest years since we’ve been producing at the current scale,” he said. “This year we’re running behind by 5 to 10 percent.”
In addition to the costs and challenges associated with the drought, Clayton Carter and other farmers must contend with their growing belief that the only weather certainty they can count on in Maine nowadays is that it will be unpredictable.
“I’m not a climate scientist, but I would say that every year seems less and less regular,” he said. “I’ve been farming in Maine for 11 years and each season has been unique in its own way.”
According to Sean Birkel, the Maine State Climatologist and research professor at the University of Maine, there is a good reason for that. He said that a “turning point of sorts” for Maine weather came around 2006 or 2007, when there was a drastic decline in Arctic sea ice and thickness. That change affected the weather pattern here, he said.
“It’s visible right in the precipitation records — total annual precipitation received throughout the state has increased notably on a statewide average,” Birkel said. “We’ve also observed that the delivery of this precipitation has been in stronger rainfall and snowfall events.”
With climate change, he said, the American west is predicted to get drier, but New England is expected to get an increase in annual rainfall. Droughts here might last a season or two but not forever.
“It’s not going to turn into a desert, that’s for sure,” he said. “The rain will come back. It’s just a question of when. It’s definitely uncomfortable, but it’s extremely unlikely that this is something we’ll have to deal with long term.”
Worries about winter
Nobody needs to tell Ann Carter about being uncomfortable. Her 100-foot-deep well was drilled into ledge about 30 years ago, and although at its best it produced only 2½ gallons of water a minute, it never failed — until this summer.
Now she and her husband, Bub Carter, are practicing radical water conservation. They’ve stretched a 50-foot hose from his son’s house next door to their well and use the water they get very sparingly. They stopped watering their plants and the garden, take only the briefest of showers and buy water from Hannaford to drink. The failure of a lot of their garden vegetables also is problematic for the couple, who usually rely on eating what they grow.
“We’ve cut all the corners that we can,” Ann Carter said. “You need water to function, and you don’t appreciate it until you lose it.”
Drilling a deeper well — an expensive endeavor — would be a financial challenge for the family, but once it turns colder, they won’t be able to rely on the garden hose anymore. Well drillers around the state have been much busier than usual as other families struggle with the same problems as Ann and Bub Carter, spending thousands of dollars in an effort to reach reliable water.
“I have three messages in front of me from people whose wells have gone dry,” Russ Cookingham, a licensed well driller at Haskell’s Water Treatment in Rockport, said. “This year’s been extremely bad.”
Ann Carter said that like many Mainers, she and her husband don’t have several thousand dollars just lying around to spend on a new well. But they need water to survive.
“We’ve never been in this position before,” she said. “We don’t know what we’re going to do, and winter’s coming.”