February 16, 2019
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Hot weather is baking Aroostook County crops

Julia Bayly | BDN
Julia Bayly | BDN
Rain is in the forecast for much of central and northern Maine this coming week, but won't be enough to have a lasting impact on current dry conditions.

Amanda Mathieu has spent the past week or so lugging 30-gallon buckets of water to her strawberry field in an attempt to save some of this year’s crop.

“The berries are literally cooking in the field, Mathieu said Tuesday afternoon from her Mathieu Berry Farm in Grand Isle. “We have a 300-gallon rain barrel [in the fields] that is full after the winter and we never usually go through it, but this year we emptied it.”

Mathieu is not alone.

The northern tier of Aroostook County is currently experiencing abnormally dry conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s online drought monitor, a term used to describe areas showing dryness but not yet in drought.

“We are watching the situation and hoping for rain,” said John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “We are hoping going forward the things will improve.”

So far in July, Aroostook County has seen just under an inch and a half of rain, according to Tim Duda, meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Caribou.

“Compared to the normal average, we should have had 3.08 inches of rain so far this month,” Duda said.

Temperatures are also above normal for July, Duda said, averaging 69.7 degrees, 4.2 degrees above average. Caribou set a record high in July 5 when it hit 94 degrees, he said.

Taking a toll

For growers like Mathieu, the combination of little rain and high temperatures is taking a toll on crops.

“Last year, we had 200 quarts of strawberries,” Mathieu said. “This year we did not even get 50 quarts [and] I’ve had to call my customers to tell them I can’t fill their orders this year.”

What berries she was able to pick were small and many ripened unevenly due to the heat.

“You have some berries that look nice and red, but on the other side they are white,” she said. “Then they rot [and] I hate having all this waste.”

It’s the same story at McElwain’s Strawberry Farm outside of Caribou where the dry conditions were the second of a one-two weather punch.

“Our [strawberry] season is done,” Frank McElwain said Tuesday. “To be honest, it was a very poor year.”

Heavier and wetter snow than usual this past winter damaged his strawberry plants, he said. The dry spell caused further damage to the already weakened plants.

“It’s been a challenge this year,” McElwain, said. “It was one of our poorest years, we’ve never had berries this small and that hurt our yield.”

McElwain does irrigate some of his fields by pumping in water for the berries, but that has not been enough this summer. McElwain estimates his harvest this season is 25 percent less than last year’s.

“Things are not growing,” said Linda Trickey, livestock specialist with the University of Maine of Cooperative Extension offices in Houlton. “It’s affected a lot of crops.”

Aroostook County’s hay crop, she said, has been hit especially hard this summer.

“The first crop was very poor,” Trickey said. “The second cutting does not look like it will be much better and I doubt many farmers will get a second cut [and] if they do, the yields will be substantially reduced.”

Trickey said she’s seen dry seasons before, but this one seems to be hitting harder that usual.

“The farmers I’ve talked to have told me they are getting half the hay they generally get,” she said. “That’s going to have an impact.”

Potatoes could be in trouble

Conditions could also impact northern Maine’s 2018 potato crop if they do not improve.

“Things are dry [and] obviously the lack of water is a concern,” said Jim Dwyer, crops specialist with Cooperative Extension. “For the potato crop, we are approaching a critical time [and] the next four weeks will determine how the crop looks.”

Over the next month the potatoes start to put on their size, and they need water to do it.

“At this point and time, we are in better shape than we would have been 15 or 20 years ago,” Dwyer said. “Growers are doing much better with crop rotation so the soil quality is better and the water holding capacity of that soil is better.”

Areas of particular concern this year are fields that contain a lot of gravel in the soil.

“Those plants are small for this time of year,” Dwyer said. “Those smaller plants are going to require some nice growing conditions to be able to produce the yields we want to see.”

Dwyer said there is, however, every reason to be optimistic for this year’s crop.

“Last year, we were dry, too, but got yields better than anticipated and high quality,” he said. “We are hoping we will get some [rain] and a good crop to harvest.”

Looking ahead

Rain is forecast for later in the week in Aroostook, and Mathieu is hoping it will be a steady, soaking rain.

“The rain we have gotten this summer have been quick downpours that hits here and there but does not stay,” she said. “If you look in your garden and field, [that rain water] just goes down about a centimeter and the heat just sucks it all back up and it doesn’t do any good.”

For now, Mathieu is pinning her hopes on a late season strawberry plant that should be ready in August.

“I’ll just keep hauling the water if it doesn’t rain,” she said.

Others, like McElwee, are done with the season.

“Our attitude is there is always next year,” he said.

In the meantime, Bott encourages farmers and gardeners to practice water conservation.

“Check your [water hauling] equipment and make sure there are no leaks,” he said. “And pray for rain.”

Those prayers may already be answered, according to Duda, who said the area is forecast to receive a steady soaking rain starting Wednesday night and lasting into Thursday.

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