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The worsening conditions mean increased costs for farmers and their customers, but there's a silver lining for fans of Maine blueberries.
Caitlin Jordan of Alewive’s Brook Farm drags a hose past a field to connect with an irrigation system. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer
More than half of Maine is experiencing moderate drought conditions leaving homeowners with brown, needlelike lawns and farmers with lowered yields and increased irrigation costs, in turn resulting in higher prices for consumers of local fruits and vegetables.
But there is good news for fans of Maine’s high-bush blueberries: They’re ready now, about a week ahead of schedule. More sun and more stress – in the form of scant rainfall – speed the ripening process, according to David Handley, small fruit specialist with the UMaine Cooperative Extension.
The U.S. Drought Monitor’s latest map of conditions, released weekly on Thursdays, showed that parts of western and central Maine previously classified as “abnormally dry” have moved into the moderate drought category while southern and midcoast Maine remain in moderate drought. As of Thursday afternoon, the 10-day forecast was not especially reassuring. Meteorologist Jon Palmer of the National Weather Service’s station in Gray used words like “scattered,” “isolated” and “iffy” to describe any predicted rainfall.
The U.S. Drought Monitor – a partnership among the National Drought Mitigation Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – spells out the impacts of a moderate drought as lower hay and grain yields; higher wildfire danger; decreased honey production; stress on fish, trees and landscapes; and increased need for irrigation.
Abnormally dry conditions in localized areas are not an uncommon occurrence in Maine in the summer, Palmer said, “but it is relatively uncommon to see (moderate) drought across our entire area.” The drought swath “goes from southern Connecticut all the way up to Baxter State Park,” he said. “It’s a big swath.”
As of Friday, Portland had had just 0.75 inches of rain this month; the 30-year average for the entire month of July is 3.43 inches, according to figures from the National Weather Service Office in Gray.Advertisement
The area’s rainfall in June and May were likewise below the average: 2.62 inches compared to the average of 4.14 in June, and 1.12 inches compared to the average of 3.67 in May.
The lack of snowpack last winter – the Portland area saw 44.1 inches of snow as opposed to the average 65.4 inches – also has had “a pretty substantial impact on our drought this summer,” Palmer said.
Jan Goranson, who has run her family farm in Dresden since the mid-1980s, understands the need to irrigate all too well. Watering the fields at Goranson Farm is expensive, laborious and time-consuming, she said on Wednesday while working her bountiful stand at the Portland Farmers’ Market. Nor can it substitute for a good steady rainfall. And, like several other area farmers, she said she is irrigating her fields much earlier in the season and much more often than in past decades.
But the alternative is worse: “We wouldn’t have crops,” she said.
For gardeners, the lack of rainfall means the need to “Water! Water! Water!” said Tom Estabrook of Estabrook’s garden center in Yarmouth. “You can’t overwater right now.”
The moderate drought is not affecting Greater Portland’s water supply, Portland Water District spokeswoman Michelle Clements said. Households and businesses that get their water from the district are not being asked to conserve, she added.Advertisement
“Sebago Lake is the second largest lake in Maine and holds nearly a trillion gallons of water, enough to supply PWD’s needs for 100 years,” she wrote in an email. “We are fortunate to have such an abundant and clean water supply.”
This season, for the first time ever, the Jordan family, which has farmed at Alewive’s Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth since Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, is tapping into that supply.
When Caitlin Jordan was a child, the brook that the farm is named for “was so full and so high we used to take a row boat down it and my parents would make us take life jackets,” she said. “Now it’s filled in so much, you can walk across it without even getting your knees wet.”
The farm pulled from the brook to irrigate the fields “every once in a while” when Caitlin was a child, she recalls. Now she is irrigating her vegetable fields every other day.
Jordan turns on the water for the irrigation system at Alewive’s Brook Farm. This year, after three very thirsty years, the Jordans are buying water from Portland Water District to irrigate their land. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer
Four years ago, the pond and stream at the farm dried up. It has taken the ensuing years for the Jordans – Caitlin runs the farm with her father Jodie and brother Lincoln – to raise the money to buy a steady, stable supply of water from the Portland Water District. Caitlin joked that they managed in the interim by crossing their fingers and praying.Advertisement
That water doesn’t come cheap: It required a $46,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service of Maine to buy the equipment and run some lines and another $30,000 of the farm’s own money, pinching and saving over several seasons, Caitlin Jordan said, to tap into water district pipes. She won’t know how much the water itself will cost until she gets a bill. Meanwhile, moving the new irrigation equipment around the fields has been “like a whole new full-time job for me.”
There is one thing that seems to grow without water, Jordan said: The weeds.
Yes, it has rained here and there a couple of times in the past week, even heavily in some spots, but the rainfall has done little to relieve the drought. On Wednesday, Jodie Jordan was, as usual, manning the Alewive’s Brook stand at the Portland Farmers’ Market. Asked about the rainfall the evening before, he described it as “a big tease,” a sentiment shared by a number of other farmers.
That’s because, as Estabrook of Estabrook’s garden center explained, the soil is like a sponge. A short, sudden downpour gives gardeners “a false sense of security,” he said. When parched soil is hit with a downpour, the water doesn’t soak in; it runs off. It’s also why in very dry conditions, people should water their gardens just before a storm is expected, Estabrook suggested counterintuitively.
Wilting flowers and browning, crunchy lawns are just two of the problems caused by drought. Plants under stress from lack of water are also more susceptible to insect pests and disease, Estabrook said. Also, garden vegetables (and farm-grown ones) will be fewer and smaller. Thirsty plants shut down production and often abort flower buds: ” ‘I can’t support the fruit, so I am going to stop the fruit,’ ” he said, speaking for the plants.Advertisement
“When is the best time to water in a dry spell? Any time you have hose in hand,” Estabrook laughed. “If you are sitting on the porch and feel you are hot and and need a drink, get the sprinkler out.”
Caleb Eshbach, who owns Olde Mill Farm in Brownfield, said his irrigation system works by gravity, so he has been spared the high price this year – roughly double – of the diesel or gas to run the pumps that power many irrigation systems.
“So far, it could be worse,” he said Wednesday about the drought affecting much of the state. “You know, a drier summer is better than a really wet summer.
“But at this point,” he added, “we need rain.”
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