Spring runs dry: A lack of rain early in the season worries Upper Valley farmers

  • Lily O’Hara checks on a retractable irrigation machine that draws a sprinkler down a row of produce over a fixed period of time at Hurricane Flats, an organic produce farm in South Royalton, Vt., Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The farm pumps water from the White River to irrigate its crops. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dust rises behind a truck driven by Lily O’Hara at Hurricane Flats farm in South Royalton, Vt., after she checked on irrigation equipment Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Geo Honigford replaces a pin after changing the implement behind his tractor in South Royalton, Vt., Wednesday, June 17, 2020. “I’ve been doing this 26 years or so and this is the driest spell I’ve seen,” said Geo Honigford, owner of Hurricane Flats, an organic produce farm, about the unusually dry weather this month. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 6/20/2020 9:51:21 PM
Modified: 6/20/2020 9:51:19 PM

Upper Valley farmers have been gazing up at the sky, and they haven’t liked what they don’t see.

What’s missing? Rain.

This spring, which officially ended Saturday, has been one of the driest in recent years. Rainfall over the past 60 days has been more than 3 inches below normal in Windsor and Grafton counties and barely 2 inches of rain have fallen since the beginning of June, according to the National Weather Service. The United States Drought Monitor has termed conditions in most of New England as “abnormally dry,” a designation more typically seen in July or August than in June.

The lack of rain comes when many Upper Valley farms, especially the ones offering community-supported agriculture (CSA) memberships, have seen swelling demand for their products as people seek locally grown vegetables and locally raised meat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dry spells are not unusual later in the summer, but to come this early in the growing season is already stressing water supplies of farmers, who are tapping backup systems for unexpected irrigation.

“I’ve had a pump going for 22 hours a day for the past five weeks from the White River,” said Geo Honigford, owner of Hurricane Flats Farm in South Royalton, which grows a wide assortment of organic vegetables and fruits sold at its roadside stand and at the Norwich Farmers Market. “The only time I stop it is to change where the sprinklers are located.”

Mark Breen, senior meteorologist at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, Vt., and one of the forecasters on VPR’s “Eye on the Sky” weather report, said seasonal rainfall was “close to average” through the second week of May and “things looked kind of rosy if on the cold side.”

But the weather pattern shifted about six weeks ago and over the past 30 days “much of the Upper Valley has been running close to 25% of the normal rainfall,” Breen said.

He said the Upper Valley typically receives 3-3½ inches of rainfall per month during the summer — about 1 inch more on higher elevations. But vegetables require more water than other crops, an inch or so a week of rain, so some irrigation is usually required.

“We don’t average quite that amount,” Breen said. “But to have two weeks without rain or very little rain is unusual in the course of the summer.”

At this point the region is not technically experiencing a drought — sometimes defined as three consecutive months with 50% or less of normal rainfall — and farmers say they are not facing an immediate water crisis. But many said they are more concerned than usual given the dry spell’s timing in the growing cycle.

“It’s early and severe,” said Paul Franklin of Riverview Farm in Plainfield, which grows many later-season crops such as apples, berries, pumpkins and squash along with flowers. “I wouldn’t say it’s dire now, but it’s getting to that point when if we don’t get some rain in a couple weeks, it’s going to be much more of a serious situation.”

Franklin said he began irrigating his flower beds, apple orchard, and blueberry and raspberry fields four weeks ago and, even though he can draw water from both a spring-fed pond and the Connecticut River, he considers himself fortunate in these circumstances not to be growing vegetables, with their steep demands.

Nonetheless, Franklin does have “6 acres of pumpkins and squash” (both are fruits) on higher ground, out of reach of his irrigation system, and he’ll be eyeing that warily.

“We are at the whim of Mother Nature there,” he said.

Though some thunderstorms are expected this week, less rain means more work for farmers as they spend time dismantling and assembling irrigation pipes around the fields.

“It’s added to a lot of labor,” said Phil Mason, general manager of Crossroad Farm in Post Mills. “We spend a good few hours every day manually moving pipe around. That’s time that could be spent weeding or harvesting.”

So much irrigation equipment is in use that workers are watering zinnia flower beds manually with water buckets.

“It’s safe to say it’s very unusual to be watering by hand,” Mason said.

With greater demand for irrigation, water sources can run low, and that sometimes requires new efforts to tap into aquifers.

“We’re probably busier this time of year than we have been in the past three or four years,” said Ken White, service manager at Valley Artesian Well Co. in Ascutney, which drills wells and uses hydro-fracturing technology to boost water output. “Brooks and streams are already lower for what we’d expect this time of year.”

Some clients were already planning to have their wells dug deeper, “but as dry as it is it’s been pushing them up to have it done sooner,” White said.

To be sure, preparation can make all the difference between bridging the dry spell and a crop severely damaged.

Danielle Allen of Root 5 Farm in Fairlee said she and her husband, Ben Dana, invested in their irrigation system — “more pipe, more sprinklers, headers, a new pump” — to draw water from the Connecticut River. “We finally have enough infrastructure and feel somewhat prepared,” she said.

Their vegetable crops, which they sell through their CSA and roadside stand, require an inch of water per week and “if we experienced this kind of drought a couple years ago it would have been really hard on us.”

The same goes for Misha Johnson and Taylor Katz, who operate Free Verse Farm in Chelsea, which grows specialty herbs for teas, cooking, remedies and body care products.

After the summer of 2016 that saw an extended drought, they installed a drip irrigation system fed by a spring to the 2 acres where they cultivate herbs.

Fortunately, Johnson said, herbs like oregano and thyme “can handle lack of water well.”

But in the field where they harvest wild herbs — red clover, yarrow, raspberry leaf, nettles — and which depends on rainfall, crops haven’t fared as well.

“We’ve noticed (the wild herbs are) growing quite slowly,” he said. “It’s come to nearly a halt due to the lack of rain and heat during the day.”

Pooh Sprague, of Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, which also grows and sells produce, said his biggest headache is filling out the quarterly reports on water usage that New Hampshire farms are required to file with the state’s Department of Environment Services.

Based on the amount of water he’s been using, “I’m going to have a spreadsheet the size of the D.O.D. budget,” he said, referring to the Pentagon.

Sprague said even though he’s been watching the water level on the Connecticut River getting lower “I’m not freaking out yet. There’s nothing 2 inches of rain wouldn’t make better right now.”

Besides, the weather pattern appears to be in sync with much of 2020, he noted.

“This is the year that everything got gummed up for everybody anyway,” Sprague said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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