September 22, 2017
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Drought in southern Maine leaves crops parched and farmers worried

By Kathleen Pierce, BDN Staff
Updated:

DAYTON, Maine — As the sun beats down on cornfields at Harris Farm, the constant “click, click, swoosh” of water pierces the air. To keep the acres of sweet corn fertile during a drought that’s getting more drastic in southern Maine day by day, farmer Bill Harris has been irrigating for weeks.

“I’ve covered 12 acres three times to get it ready,” he said.

It’s midsummer, and the Dayton farmer should be blazing trails and mending bridges for his winter cross-country ski business, but the punishingly dry summer has left corn stocks parched. “Corn is king. It’s what stops traffic,” the 73-year-old, who has spent weeks watering his endless ears instead of relying on Mother Nature, said. Because he can’t douse his entire 18 acres of corn, he’s let some patches go. “If time is money, it’s costing quite a lot.”

Climatologists say the region from Portland south is suffering a moderate to severe drought, with no relief in sight. The trend of less than normal rainfall began in April and has not let up.

“In Portland from May 1 until now there have been 8.2 inches of rain, which yields a 31 percent deficit compared to norm,” said Maine State Climatologist Sean Birkel, who predicts “the next three months will be warmer than normal.”

John Rebar, executive director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, is monitoring the situation across the state and said weather conditions are not yet dire.

“It depends on how long it lasts and how severe it is. Right now what we are seeing and hearing is water stress in southern Maine. They are not suffering in northern Maine,” he said.

The drought has hit York and Cumberland counties hardest, with parts of Androscoggin and Sagadahoc affected. Meanwhile, northern Maine has seen above average precipitation this year. “Someone’s pain is another person’s pleasure,” Rebar said.

Some farmers haven’t seen conditions this scorched in a lifetime.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” John Fenderson, owner of Fenderson Farm in Saco, said. He is praying for rain. “Cucumbers [and] a lot of the vine crops are hurting. Some of the ears of corn are real, real small. You lose some stuff because it’s so darn dry.”

Farmers who don’t have irrigation systems such as Fenderson are in the tightest spots. He waters with hoses and sprinklers, but that is not enough this year.

“I will survive, but it’s a hard year. It’s not the way I’d like to see it,” said Fenderson, who predicts his hay crop will be shot. “It’s the second bad year for hay. Looks like there will not be a second crop, unless things change around real quick. Just a slow, steady rain will help.”

The piddling bouts of rain falling on York County since July are barely making a dent.

But that’s not the case up north. “Aroostook County has had adequate summer rains, which is good because potatoes need the water to bulk up. York County is in the severe category,” Dave Colson, agriculture services director for Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said.

Farmers who invest in irrigation, such as Harris, are using it liberally to keep crops thriving.

“Folks that don’t have irrigation are seeing crop failures,” Colson said, singling out melons and tomatoes not grown in hoop houses or greenhouses as hardest hit.

“They soak up a lot of moisture and require that to get to size. Short term we will see a reduction of winter squash,” Colson said. Because apple trees are not typically irrigated in New England, that crop is predicted to be less than average this fall.

Ramona Snell of Snell Family Farm in Buxton expects the volume of fruit at her pick-your-own orchard to shrink.

“The drought is very stressful. There are things we can’t get water to that are suffering. You hear there are showers and get your hopes up, and 15 little drops leads to dust,” Snell said.

For now, what’s needed is a steady extended rainfall “to allow moisture to be absorbed into the ground,” Colson said.

These farmers are praying for moisture to fall from the sky, but they are flat out.

“Apples are down. It will be a light crop this year. Onions that haven’t had water are smaller. They will finish up early. People that are raising corn are trying to get water on it. … The farmers are working hard,” Snell said.

And because this season dictates the next, autumn looms large.

“We are trying to keep going. We need to get somethings planted now that grow in the fall. Some water from the sky would be well appreciated,” Snell said. “Whenever it rains you realize how feeble your attempts are compared to real, nice rain.”

If there is silver lining of this dry season, it’s fewer insects and less disease. “In 2009-2010 we had late blight on tomatoes, which had a much bigger effect. There are no signs right now. That’s one good thing,” Colson said.

Pests such as the spotted wing drosophila, a small fruit fly that was a scourge for farmers in summers past, is “real, real low in numbers,” Jim Dill, UMaine Extension School’s pest management specialist, said. “They are so late because it’s too hot and dry. Japanese beetles are spotty and late too.”

The other plus of a rainless summer? People are out and about.

“Hot dry summers are good for business. People are going to the lakes, beaches, having cookouts and stopping by to get stuff for those events,” Rachel Harris, who helps run Harris Farm, said. “We have the same delicious sweet corn, all the veggies. … Crops like the heat, as long as you add water.”

 


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