Northeast farmers face new challenges with severe drought

PROVISION, RI — Vermont farmer Brian Kemp is used to seeing Mountain Meadows Farm’s pastures grow more slowly in the hot, late summer, but this year the grass is standing still.

That’s “very unnerving” when you’re grazing 600 to 700 cattle, says Kemp, who runs an organic beef farm in Sudbury. He describes recent weather as inconsistent and impactful, which he attributes to a changing climate.

“I don’t think there’s anything more normal,” Kemp said.

The effects of climate change are being felt throughout the Northeastern US with rising sea levels, torrential precipitation and storm surges causing flooding and coastal erosion. But this summer brought another extreme: a severe drought that is making lawns crispy and farmers begging for continued rain. The heavy, brief rainfall occasionally caused by a thunderstorm tends to drain and not penetrate the ground.

The water supply is low or dry, and many communities restrict non-essential outdoor water use. Fire brigades fight more forest fires and crops grow poorly.

Providence, Rhode Island had less than an inch of rain in its third driest July on record, and Boston had six-tenths of an inch in its fourth driest July on record, according to the National Weather Service office in Norton, Massachusetts. The Rhode Island governor issued a statewide drought advisory Tuesday with recommendations to reduce water use. The north end of the Hoppin Hill Reservoir in Massachusetts is dry, imposing local water restrictions.

Maine officials said the drought there really started in 2020, with occasional improvements in areas since then. In Auburn, Maine, local firefighters helped a dairy farmer fill a water tank for his cows when his well got too low in late July and temperatures reached 90. good research.

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The ongoing trend towards drier summers in the Northeast can certainly be attributed to the impact of climate change, as warmer temperatures lead to more evaporation and dehydration of the soil, climate scientist Michael Mann said. But, he said, the dry weather can be interrupted by extreme rainfall, because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture — when conditions are conducive to rainfall, there is more of it in short bursts.

Mann said there is evidence from his research at Penn State University that climate change is leading to a “stuck jet stream” pattern. That means huge meanders of the jetstream, or airflow, are stuck in place, blocking extreme weather events that can be alternately associated with extreme heat and drought in one location and extreme rainfall in another, a pattern that is set to unfold this summer. has dealt with the heat and drought in the Northeast and extreme flooding in parts of the Midwest, Mann added.

Most of New England is in drought. The US Drought Monitor released a new map Thursday that shows areas of eastern Massachusetts outside Cape Cod and much of southern and eastern Rhode Island now in extreme, rather than severe, drought.

New England has experienced severe summer droughts before, but experts say it’s unusual to have droughts in fairly rapid succession since 2016. Massachusetts experienced droughts in 2016, 2017, 2020, 2021 and 2022, which is most likely due to climate change, said Vandana Rao, Massachusetts water policy director.

“We’re hoping that maybe this is a period of drought and we get many years of normal rainfall again,” she said. “But it could just be the start of a longer trend.”

Rao and other New England water experts expect the current drought to continue for several more months.

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“I think we’re probably going to be on this for a while and it’s going to take a lot of work,” said Ted Diers, deputy director of the water division for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. “What we’re really hoping for is a wet fall followed by a very snowy winter to really recharge the aquifers and groundwater.”

Rhode Island’s chief ranger Ben Arnold is concerned about the drought extending into the fall. That’s when people do more yard work, burn brushes, use fireplaces, and spend time in the woods, increasing the risk of wildfires. The fires this summer have been relatively small, but it takes a lot of time and effort to put them out because they burn in the dry ground, Arnold said.

Haymaker Milan Adams said one of the fields he works in Exeter, Rhode Island, is three feet below. In previous years it rained in the spring. This year, he said, the drought started in March and April was so dry that he was nervous about his first cut of hay.

“The height of the hay was there, but there was no volume. From there we got a little bit of rain in early May which turned it upside down,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything since then.”

Farmers are fighting more than the drought — inflation is driving up the cost of everything from diesel and equipment parts to fertilizers and pesticides, Adams added.

“It’s all going through the roof now,” he said. “This is just throwing salt on a wound.”

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Hay yield and quality is also lower in Vermont, meaning there won’t be as much for cows in the winter, said Anson Tebbetts, Vermont’s secretary of agriculture. The state has about 600 dairy farms, a $2 billion per year industry. Like Adams, Tebbetts said inflation drives prices up, which will hurt farmers who have to buy feed.

Kemp, the president of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, is grateful to have supplemental feed last year, but he knows other farmers who have no land to set up a reserve and are not well supplied. The coalition tries to help farmers to develop and learn new practices. In the spring they added ‘climate-smart farming’ to their mission.

“Agriculture is a challenge,” Kemp said, “and it becomes even more challenging as climate change takes place.”

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