The hot, dry summer that broke weather records may be just a memory, but more than half of Maine is still in moderate, severe or extreme drought, according to the map released Thursday by the United States Drought Monitor.
That means that as farmers and others around the state prepare for winter, many are still hoping for more rain and snow to fall to recharge irrigation ponds, irrigate tree roots and otherwise get Maine in a better position for next year.
For Ellen McAdam of McDougal Orchards in Springvale, the drought took a visible toll on the apple crop. The orchard, located in York County, is in the only part of the state still considered to be in extreme drought. Earlier this fall, customers seeking a pandemic-safe activity came in droves to pick their own apples. But because of the drought, the apples on trees that couldn’t be irrigated were much smaller than normal.
“There’s a lot of things we’d like to put behind us from this year,” she said Friday. “It does worry me. I’m hoping that over the winter we’ll get enough snow to cover the tree roots, and hoping for a relatively wet spring.”
That hope is echoed by experts such as Renae Moran, a tree fruit specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. She said she fears the true toll of the drought won’t be known for some time, in part because trees already have formed the flowers that will bud out in the spring.
“It could do a number on how trees form blossoms,” Moran said. “Maybe that’s just me being a pessimist … but I think we probably won’t see the full effects of the drought until next year.”
The drought also has caused wells around the state, especially those that are dug and not drilled, to run dry. At Hatch Well Drillers in Nobleboro, between the drought and the boom in the real estate market, workers have been busier than ever.
“Everyone’s been working flat out,” Elisha Hopkins, office manager, said. “We’ve been having to turn some work away.”
She did say that calls have slowed from homeowners with dug wells that have newly run dry.
“But people that have already had a problem this year don’t want to have a problem again next year,” she said.
Nutkin Knoll Tree Farm in Newburgh is located in a wide swath of the state that’s still in moderate drought conditions. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, this can lead to trees and landscaping being stressed. But Len and Nancy Price, the owners of the farm, said that as Christmas season approaches, their trees are green and healthy looking.
“Our trees look great right now,” Nancy Price said.
According to Len Price, although the summer was very dry, balsam fir is a hardy species with the ability to regulate moisture in their needles to some extent.
“Evolution works, and trees have been around for a long time,” Price, who taught science for 30 years, said. “That’s kind of the bottom line. These trees have been through all sorts of cycles for 10,000 years.”
Still, it was a challenging year at the farm, which plants 5,000 to 7,000 seedlings annually.
“We rarely lose trees,” he said. “But the last batch that we planted, it never rained. And it happened to be on what the old-timers call a bony site.”
Those trees all died, he said. But with the fall bringing much-needed rain, the Prices are hopeful that conditions will improve.
“The fall is when the root growth takes place — that’s really important,” Len Price said, adding that he is also pleased with how well the trees are keeping their needles. “I think all that bodes very favorably for Christmas trees this fall.”