This year’s drought a dry sign of things to come

As Maryanne and Ginger, two trusted cows at Great Bay Farm, in Greenland, New Hampshire, wander a field, farmer Allen Smith points to his two silos, one empty and the other half-filled with corn feed. During a typical New England fall, both silos should be full of grass haylage cut from Smith’s land, but historic drought has kept the silos nearly bare.

The United States has not seen an October this dry in more than 50 years. According to the National Center for Environmental Information, average rainfall in the lower 48 states was just one-half inch, roughly a quarter of the typical amount.

Even a heavy rain in the Seacoast in late October, Smith said, came “two months too late.” The impact of little rain could cost Seacoast livestock farmers, forced to look elsewhere for hay, as much as $10 million this year, according to one estimate from the Farm Credit East Knowledge Exchange.

Lorraine Merrill, New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner, has seen the toll of this year’s drought on her own land, a dairy farm in Stratham that she has farmed since 1961.

            “The seacoast is a little bit drought prone, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen, no question,” Merrill said.

As Seacoast farmers struggle to produce a full crop during this dry season, scientists expect the problem to get worse. According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment: “Over the long-term (2070–2099) under the higher emissions scenario, New Hampshire, New England, and upstate New York can expect to experience a two- to three-fold increase in the frequency of short-term drought and more significant increases in medium-term drought.”

Droughts will become more common as climate change factors worsen. Climate change is occurring because rising carbon emissions are altering climate patterns. The carbon emissions effectively trap the earth’s heat, allowing temperatures to rise across the globe. The 2014 National Climate Assessment reports that, “The chances for record-breaking temperature extremes has increased and will continue to increase as the global climate warms.”

When temperature rises, the moisture in the ground evaporates and leaves behind a dry earth. The earth needs precipitation to return to healthy soil, but if the deficit is too great, it can be hard to rehydrate the ground no matter how much rain falls.

Throughout the Seacoast, there are still green fields and lush trees, but this drought is beneath the surface, and superficial rainfall can not catch up to the moisture depletion below. Parts of the Seacoast remain in a D3 drought status, coping with the fallout of an extreme drought scenario.

Smith is a fifth generation farmer. He works alongside Moxie, an energetic dog that is not afraid to walk near the hooves of the cows and greet strangers. This year’s dry weather plagued the livestock feed. The farm has produced only forty percent of the grass haylage that a regular season would yield. Haylage is made from grass, like regular hay, but cut and left to dry for less time than hay. Therefore, haylage holds more moisture and nutrients. Most farms produce hay in order to feed their livestock. Hay can grow in multiple rounds, or cuts. Farmers can see two or three cuts in a normal season. This year some farms only had enough haylage for one cut.

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A half-full silo of corn feed at Great Bay Farm

The milk production at Smith’s dairy farm hasn’t been affected because he has managed to keep the cows fed. However, it was imperative to search for haylage elsewhere, since he only had about 400 tons this year.

For some farmers and livestock owners outsourcing is their only option.

“If someone finds a source, you usually keep it a secret,” Smith said.

The Farm Credit East Knowledge Exchange is a network that provides credit and services to agricultural producers in New England. According to a report from the Farm Credit East Knowledge Exchange, “a typical New Hampshire dairy farm will have to spend an additional $738 per cow to replace crops lost to drought.”

Chase Farms, in Wells, Maine lost a part of every crop that was on high ground this season. Rick Chase Jr. and his father are committed to traditional farming, without irrigation. This year they hauled water to their livestock and had to outsource feed for their cattle, a consequence brought on by the severe drought. Normally, Chase would get the first cut in June and the second some time in August, but it was so dry the grass did not grow back after the first go around. He had to buy his feed somewhere else.

Livestock eat hay, alfalfa, or corn. Generally it is not economically feasible to irrigate these crops according to Merrill.

Farmers “have suffered really significant losses to the point that they will run out of feed before Thanksgiving,” Merrill said. “This is normally the time of year that the farmers would have the most stock on hand.”

Preventative steps now can help farmers during future drought.

“We do need to work on conservation,” Merrill said. “We need research for how different or changing climate affects crops and animals and how we can build more resiliency into these systems and adapt to these changes.”

Some see irrigation as one answer. But that doesn’t appeal to every farmer.

“We do not irrigate. We don’t do it and won’t,” Chase said. “The biggest reason is that it’s usually an awfully time consuming job, pumping water, doing pipe, not getting your vegetables picked quickly.”

But when done correctly, irrigation can help crops flourish, and the process can reduce overall energy consumption by utilizing energy efficient designs. These systems can save water and lower energy strains on farms.

At Emery Farm, in Durham, N.H., Brad Towle irrigates most of his crops from a pond. The water level is lower than it has been in 20 years. The farm also uses water from a pipeline that runs to Portsmouth. But with the drought, 15 municipalities has restricted water use as of mid-October.

“We irrigate through that source, but if it gets bad they won’t let us do that anymore,” Towle said. Irrigating crops can provide a healthy turn out, but the produce is still the dependent variable.

Becky Sideman, a professor of sustainable agriculture and food systems at the University of New Hampshire and a farmer, has coped with drought conditions while researching various vegetable and berry production.

“The questions I have gotten from farmers have been more focused on insect pests and irrigation,” Sideman said.

One silver lining for the crops of New Hampshire is a reduction in fungal diseases. Unfortunately for researchers such as Sideman, this makes it harder to evaluate treatment for such diseases.

While fungal diseases are low, insect pressure is on the rise during sustained periods of drought: When moisture is away, cabbage aphid (a small sap-sucking insect) will play. Dry seasons like this allow them to thrive.

Cabbage aphids have attacked Brussels sprouts particularly hard. Sideman and an undergraduate student, Talia Levy, are looking to save the Brussels sprouts by introducing other insects to combat the aphid.

Sideman also works with grapes, a crop that does not normally need to be watered because of its very deep roots.

“If the drought persists and we get drier and drier ground conditions, I could risk losing them,” Sideman said.

Cathy Neal, an extension professor at UNH who specializes in nursery and landscape horticulture, has been working since 2002 to compile a list of drought tolerant plants for New Hampshire landscapes as a reaction to the last bout of drought in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Neal has observed the drought’s significant impact on lawns and young trees. By late summer, trees that were planted in 2015 or early 2016 had bare branches and wilting leaves, desperate for moisture.

“It takes two to four years for newly transplanted trees to regrow their root systems to the point where they can withstand drought,” Neal said.

If the right plant and site combination is selected, irrigation isn’t always necessary.

“Simply depending on irrigation is not the best strategy, because we should be conserving water at all times, and when a drought occurs, many places impose restrictions on watering lawns and plants,” Neal said.

As a way of adapting to climate change, she believes that plants should be selected in regards to their site conditions.

Neal worries the drought might halt the production of some gardens; that gardeners will be reluctant to continue planting with such dry conditions. They might stay away from gardening because they can’t or won’t water them, but she says this hurts the local agrarian and plant industries.

“It’s also bad for the environment because plants serve many functions besides aesthetics,” says Neal. “They help protect soil and water resources, mitigate the climate through shading and cooling, sequester carbon, recycle organic matter and nutrients, absorb pollutants and provide wildlife and pollinator habitat. Rather than not planting anything, people should select adaptable plants suited to their site conditions.”

A drought tolerant garden can house a variety of beautiful species. The garden could house plots of budding baby’s breath, sage, and marigolds, for example.

The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) has drought assistance programs to help some farmers that qualify. The Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) helps farmers that have experienced a loss in their grazing fields. Farms in a county experiencing a D2 or D3 drought for eight weeks or more are eligible. The USDA may also provide emergency loans to cover the season’s production loss.

Merrill has heard of two New Hampshire farms that quit the dairy business, selling herds this fall.

“Both of these farms are located in the extreme drought area, and drought losses were probably a major factor in their decisions,” said Merrill.

Merrill says that plenty of farmers are having hard discussions about their future in the weather dependent business.

“Farmers, more than most people,” she said, “live or die by the weather.”

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