After dry start to spring, area farmers hoping for turnaround — while meteorologists predict persisting drought through summer

Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2015

EASTHAMPTON — In a field at Pepin Farm on East Street Thursday, Ken Pepin knelt to grab a handful of clay-like dirt and squeezed it in his palm.

He said he is lucky to have soil that holds moisture well. Even though April and May have been abnormally dry — through Wednesday, only .68 inches of rain had been recorded at a National Weather Service Station in Westfield — Pepin’s asparagus and young tomatoes and corn plants are growing fairly well. A deluge of rain Wednesday night helped too, he said.

But if meteorologists are correct in their predictions that drought conditions in Massachusetts will persist through the summer, he may have to break out a piece of equipment he hasn’t had to use in years. He pointed out the large reel, wrapped with a 1,600-foot fire hose. It attaches to a tractor to carry water from an irrigation pump to the dry fields.

“I haven’t used it in four of five years,” Pepin said, standing next to the parked machinery.

Then he laughed. “I hope it doesn’t leak.”

Farmers in the Pioneer Valley have had their eyes to the skies — and on the local weather forecast — looking for rain. Other than the occasional wave of thunderstorms, like those that passed through this week, the spring has been arid.

Farmers interviewed by the Gazette this week called the dry spell “worrisome” but said it is too early in the season to panic about a drought.

“We’re worried, but the rain has to be coming,” said Joseph Rex of Four Rex Farm, at 110 West St. in Hadley. “At this point if we get some rain we’ll be all right. If there’s another month of dryness, it’s not going to be pretty.”

Seasonal forecast

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center released its seasonal drought outlook last week, forecasting that the drought conditions in southern New England will persist or intensify through the end of August.

Massachusetts is currently in a moderate drought, and the moisture supply in the topsoil is short or very short in most of the state — meaning the conditions are affecting plant development. That’s according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a collaboration of the Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Drought Mitigation Center.

“It’s what we would call emerging drought conditions,” said Joseph Dellicarpini, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Taunton. In other words, he explained, it means: “Don’t panic yet, but we do want to see things change.”

The Northeast has seen about half to two-thirds of its usual rainfall since March 1, according to the Drought Monitor. A weather monitoring station at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield reported that so far in the month of May, it has rained a total of .68 inches — all on May 19 and 27. The station reported 3.23 inches of rain fell in April, which was closer to but still below the average.

Dellicarpini said the main impact of the drought conditions, besides impacts on farming, is that stream and river levels are well below normal.

Usually in the summer, short-term “localized relief” comes in the form of brief storms. “Plants and lawns might recover a bit, but it’s not the long-term relief” that would replenish streams and rivers, he said. “What we need is soaking rainfall — like an inch.”

Rex said he would love to have a few “drizzly days” to move his starter plants — tomatoes, peppers, and cantaloupes — from greenhouses into the fields. The plants are outgrowing their pots, though, so he has already started the transplanting process despite the fairly dry ground.

“We have to keep going with our regular schedule,” he said. It’s not worth it to alter your plans because of an extended forecast based on models, he said — things are delayed enough because the dry weather stunts growth.

“Things are growing because it’s warm enough, but without water, they’re not growing as fast,” he said. His sweet corn is delayed, but growing. “The asparagus is thinner than normal, but we’re still picking every day,” he said, adding that asparagus plants would be happiest to have an inch of rain a week — more than the Valley has had all month.

Some plants like it drier than others, he said, but none of his crops are flourishing in these conditions.

“Some like it dry, but they all need some water,” he said.

Irrigation can be key

Further north at Riverland Farm in Sunderland, Robert Lynch has found himself settling into a far different routine this year. Like many other Franklin County farms, Lynch’s River Road farm, which he and his wife Meghan Arquin have owned for the past nine years, the dry weather has forced the couple and their nine employees to irrigate far more than usual this year.

Usually, Lynch wakes up around 5 a.m. and is in bed by 10 p.m., but the drought has had him waking up between midnight and 2 a.m. to go out and check the fields before returning to bed and clocking his last few hours of sleep.

“The main thing that it’s affected is what we need to do on a daily and weekly basis,” said Arquin. “Adding the irrigation to the operation requires us to get up a lot earlier and go to bed a lot later to make sure we get water on the fields.”

If they don’t, the seeds they plant won’t germinate and plants that have been transplanted to the fields could dry out and perish in the heat, she said.

“Some of our crops just don’t look as good as they have in years past,” said Arquin. “The broccoli, the kale, they’re just not quite as happy. The strawberries look phenomenal this year, though, and some other crops aren’t minding it as much.”

At Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, co-owner Ben Clark said he normally irrigates his apple, cherry and peach trees through drip irrigation regardless of drought conditions, but parts of the orchard aren’t served by the system. While that’s not usually a problem, this year he’s had to truck water to those sections and water them, which takes up time that could be spent doing other tasks.

“It adds a couple hours each day, but that’s just one of the realities of farming,” Clark said.

Though cherries and peaches actually benefit from dryer conditions close to the harvest because it concentrates the sugars, Clark said dry conditions now could affect the size of the fruit later.

“We’d prefer the next two months be wetter, then have it dry in August,” he said.

Tim Nourse of Nourse Farms in Whately said his operation irrigates routinely as well because he needs to ensure his global network of clients are consistently supplied with the strawberry and raspberry plants he grows.

“Irrigation is part of farming here at Nourse,” he said. “We have to manage our risk, because our customers depend on our plants.”

Preferable to wet season?

Some farmers — especially the ones with irrigation systems or slow-draining soil — prefer a dry summer to a wet one.

Pepin recalled complaining about a dry season when he was younger, and being scolded by an older farmer. “He said, ‘you can always put more water on, you can’t take it off,’” Pepin said.

Maybe even more than most farmers, he prefers a drier summer. He has clay-like soil that holds moisture both in the acres by his home on East Street and in the floodplain land he farms near the Oxbow. While he doesn’t have a permanent irrigation system, he can irrigate both sites when needed using water from the Connecticut River or a brook on his 491 East St. property.

Rex said he has limited ability to water his crops because his land is so spread out, but he still prefers a drier growing season. Wet weather makes mold and disease more likely, like the late blight that has harmed Valley tomato crops in recent years.

“Dry, windy weather is best because it keeps the foliage dry,” he said. Dry leaves do not allow the spores to take hold.

‘Getting worrisome’

Thomas Petcen of Pop’s Farm in Hatfield said the lack of rain is “getting worrisome.”

“It’s not a disaster yet. The water stays in the ground for quite a while,” he said Wednesday. A good soaking will keep the ground moist for a long time, he said, but even a short storm “once in a while” can get the job done.

“In the summer, that’s about all you’ll get,” he said.

Petcen does not irrigate his 30-acre farm at 62 Chestnut St., where he grows mostly corn, pumpkins and asparagus.

“Mother Nature has to take care of us. This year, she isn’t,” he said. “The last few years we’ve had too much rain, but we lived through it. It comes out in the wash.”

Like Rex, he said the dry weather is delaying his crops and has made him hold off moving plants from the greenhouse to the field for as long as possible, hoping to wait for damper soil.

Also like Rex, he is not betting on the National Weather Service’s season-long drought forecast. “I don’t listen to that stuff — because what are we going to do?” he said.

At Ravenwold Greenhouses at 1095 Florence Road in Northampton, operator George Adams said the sweet corn he planted is doing well because it is in a field with “damper, heavier earth.” When it comes time to move his starter plants out to the fields, he will try to plow up a spot with the same kind of soil, he said.

He does not have an irrigation system, so he is hoping for more rain in the next few weeks — that’s when he will have to plant his starter tomato, pepper and cucumber plants.

“We need a good soaking day, at least an inch, an inch and a half,” Adams said.

Dellicarpini said that their may be some showers over the weekend, but the next week looks like more of the same dry conditions.

Tom Relihan of the Recorder contributed to this report. Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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