Farmers in the Northeast face new challenges with severe drought

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PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) — Vermont farmer Brian Kemp is used to the slower growth of pastures at Mountain Meadows Farm in hot late summer, but this year the grass is standing still.

It’s “very nerve wracking” when you’re grazing 600 to 700 cattle, said Kemp, who runs an organic meat farm in Sudbury. He describes recent weather as volatile and influential, 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 Northeast US with rising sea levels, heavy rainfall and storm surges causing flooding and coastal erosion. But this summer has brought another extreme: a severe drought that is making the lawns crisp and farmers begging for steady rain. The heavy, short rains brought on by occasional thunderstorms tend to run off rather than soak into the ground.

Water supplies are low or dry, and many communities restrict non-essential outdoor water use. Firefighters are fighting more bushfires and crops are growing poorly.

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

Officials in Maine said drought conditions really started there in 2020, with occasional improvements in areas since. In Auburn, Maine, local firefighters were helping a dairy farmer fill a water tank for his cows when his well ran too low and temperatures hit 90 in late July. About 50 dry wells have been reported to the state since 2021, according to the state Well Survey.

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

Mann said his research at Penn State University had evidence that climate change is leading to a “stalled jet stream” pattern. That means huge meanders of jet stream, or airflow, get stuck in place and include extreme weather events that can alternate with extreme heat and drought in one location and extreme rainfall in another, a pattern that is beginning to emerge this summer with the heat and drought in the Northeast and extreme flooding in parts of the Midwest, Mann added.

Most of New England is suffering from drought. The US Drought Monitor released a new map Thursday showing areas of eastern Massachusetts outside of 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 are very likely due to climate change, said Vandana Rao, Massachusetts director of water policy.

“We hope that perhaps this is a peak drought period and we return to many more years of normal rainfall,” she said. “But it could just be the beginning of a longer trend.”

Rao and other New England water experts predict the current drought will continue for several months.

“I think we’re probably going to be busy with this for a while, and it’s going to take a lot of time,” 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 autumn 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 lasting into the fall. Then people do more gardening, burn brushes, use fire pits, and spend time in the forest, increasing the risk of wildfires. This summer’s fires were relatively small, but they take a lot of time and effort to put out because they burn into the dry ground, Arnold said.

Hay farmer Milan Adams said one of the fields he tills in Exeter, Rhode Island, is covered a foot deep in powder. 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 hay cut.

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

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

“It’s going through the roof right now,” he said. “It just rubs salt on a wound.”

Hay yield and quality are also declining in Vermont, meaning there won’t be as much for cows in the winter, Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said. The state has approximately 600 dairy farms, a $2 billion-a-year industry. Like Adams, Tebbetts said inflation is driving up prices, which will hurt farmers who have to buy forage.

Kemp, president of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, is grateful to have supplemental feed from last year, but he knows other farmers who don’t have land to set up a reserve and aren’t well taken care of. The coalition is trying to help farmers evolve and learn new practices. In the spring, they added “climate-friendly agriculture” to their mission statement.

“Farming is challenging,” Kemp said, “and it’s becoming even more challenging as climate change takes place.”

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