Drought squeeze is on: Lack of rain browning pastures and stressing crops, driving farmers to irrigate more

  • Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm, moves the water reel from one part of the field to another in order to start the irrigation for the day early Wednesday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm, attaches the irrigation line to the water reel. The reel slowly pulls the irrigation line through the field so he can water a larger area. This is the second field he set up Wednesday morning and if he moves the reel again he will have to come back to the fields that night to stop the pump. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm, carries a container of gas down a steep incline to the irrigation pump at the Connecticut River. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ryan Voiland prepares an irrigation pump at the Connecticut River to water crops at his Red Fire Farm. The levels of the river change daily because of the energy company upstream, and Vouland has lost pumps if he does not move them fast enough. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm, heads through a lettuce field in Montague near the Connecticut River after attaching the irrigation line to the water reel to turn on the pump at the river. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm, moves the irrigation pump closer to the Connecticut River. The levels of the river change daily, and has caused Voiland to lose pumps if he doesn’t move them fast enough. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ryan Voiland climbs up a steep incline after starting his irrigation pump at the Connecticut River for Red Fire Farm. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm, drives back to the lettuce field after starting the irrigation pump at the Connecticut River to make sure all is working. The water reel slowly pulls the spray nozzle through the field so more ground can get watered. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm, pulls the irrigation line to the Water-Reel so he can reattach it before turning on the pump at the river. This is the second field he set up Wednesday morning and if he moves the reel again, he will have to come back to the fields that night to stop the pump. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Water sprays over a lettuce field co-owned by Ryan Voiland, of Red Fire Farm, early Wednesday morning. The cost and labor involved in irrigating the fields is sufficient during the drought. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm, heads through a lettuce field in Montague near the Connecticut River after attaching the irrigation line to the water reel to turn on the pump at the river. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Water sprays over a lettuce field co-owned by Ryan Voiland, of Red Fire Farm, early Wednesday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm, works to unhook the irrigation line so he can reattach it to the water reel. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/5/2022 6:03:45 PM

MONTAGUE  — With another hot day on the horizon, farmer Ryan Voiland spent part of Wednesday morning hauling a can of gas down a steep embankment behind his farm that leads to the Connecticut River, where he’s set up an irrigation pump to draw much-needed river water for his nearby crops.

With that chore accomplished, the co-owner of Red Fire Farm uses a rope to steady himself as he climbs back up the hill to fields. Once there, he maneuvers long stretches of irrigation line into place. Sometimes this involves moving a large water reel to different sections of the farm that need water.

It’s become an unfortunate and time-consuming occurrence for Voiland this summer, but a necessary endeavor during drought conditions that threaten to destroy his organic fruits and vegetables.

“I can say I’m tired,” he said. “It’s a good workout.” He also said that he would really like “a good rainstorm.”

As the drought continues across Massachusetts, Voiland is not the only area farmer working through these conditions to continue their livelihood.

At Grace Hill Farm in Cummington, farmer Max Breiteneicher said the drought has meant less grass for his dairy cows to eat. That, in turn, means that he’s milking them at half the rate he normally does and, if conditions continue as they are, he said the farm may stop milking this month, a full three months earlier than normal.

“It’s just a bummer,” he said of the effects of the drought.

A dry state

As of the state’s latest update, all seven of Massachusetts’ drought regions are experiencing at least some form of drought. The Connecticut River Valley Region, which covers Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties, was listed at Level 2. There are five levels for drought that the state uses, with Level 0 meaning normal conditions and Level 4 meaning Emergency Drought.

Level 2 is listed as Significant Drought, meaning that irrigation use increases, wildfires and ground fires increase, and honey production declines. A Level 1 drought can mean crop growth is stunted and planting is delayed, lawns brown early and gardens begin to wilt, and hay and grain yields are lower than normal.

“It’s a big contrast in comparison to last year,” said Kel Komenda, co-owner of Many Graces Farm & Design, who noted that they lost crops last year due to too much rain.

Many Graces is a flower farm based out of Hadley, and Komenda said that they’ve lost flowers this year due to the heat.

“They’re all really stressed out,” Komenda said.

This summer’s drought is worse than the droughts the state experienced the past two years and is coming close to the severity of the drought in 2016, said Vandana Rao, director of water policy at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and chair of the state’s Drought Management Task Force. In addition to impacting farmers, the dry conditions have led to water restrictions in many communities.

“In 2016 much of the state was in a Level 3,” Rao said.

Cutting back on water use is key, Rao said, particularly nonessential use. And she urged people to fix leaky appliances as another measure.

“A toilet can really waste a lot of water,” she said.

Rao also said that people shouldn’t be afraid of having a dry lawn, and should run dishwashers and washing machines only when they are full.

“We need to make sure that we have enough water for ourselves and for our environment,” Rao said, explaining that the water supply may run thin in future months if water is not conserved.

The suggestions the state has for residents and businesses in Level 2 areas are to minimize water use and to limit outdoor watering to handheld hoses or watering cans, and to do this after 5 p.m. or before 9 a.m. Agricultural irrigation and watering vegetable gardens are considered essential, and thus exempt from these recommendations.

Nicole Belk, a senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Norton, reports that precipitation in the Connecticut River Valley Region has been 50-75% of normal from May through July. While the Springfield area had close to normal precipitation in July, precipitation has been below normal in the northern parts of the region such as Greenfield and Deerfield.

Belk said the NWS predicts that the drought will persist in the Connecticut River Valley for August. As to its impacts already, she said soil moisture is much less than normal, rivers and streams are running below normal, and there are lower groundwater levels overall.

Water restrictions

Some Hampshire County communities have responded to the drought by issuing water restrictions.

Easthampton has mandated that residents only water by hand if they’re on city water, and do so only before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m.

Northampton has put a water use restriction in place that prohibits nonessential water use from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for those on city water. This includes washing vehicles outside of a commercial car wash and watering a lawn with sprinklers.

Hadley residents on town water are also facing a water restriction, including a ban on automatic sprinklers and the filling of swimming pools. Food production is exempt from these restrictions.

“For the most part the farms are doing OK,” Rao said, and most of the water resources they’re using are holding up. However, she said that could change.

At Grace Hill Farm, Breiteneicher said the drought has had a significant impact on their business. “For us it was very poorly timed,” said Breiteneicher, who owns the farm with his wife, Amy.

Grace Hill Farm makes cheese from the milk of its small herd of dairy cattle, and Breiteneicher said the drought hit right after they finished their first grazing.

“It just didn’t regrow,” Breiteneicher said of the grass.

Almost all of what the cows at Grace Hill Farm eat is grass, a term that covers other field plants such as clover. And because there is less of it, Breiteneicher said they started milking the cows once a day in mid-July, as opposed to the usual twice a day.

Without additional grass growth they may stop milking early, Breiteneicher said, in August rather than in November.

Still, Breiteneicher said their business is not in danger of going under.

Komenda, of Many Graces, said their farm is OK right now, but every day “becomes more stressful.” Farming in a drought is more costly from both a labor and a production standpoint, Komenda said.

Rosendo Santizo owns Winter Moon Roots in Hadley, which grows many different types of root vegetables, such as carrots and beets and rutabagas. Like Komenda, he said the drought has made for more work on the farm.

“It’s a pain in the butt,” Santizo said.

Although he expressed gratitude that they have water, Santizo said the drought has affected the germination of crops on the farm.

“I’m expecting a lower yield,” he said.

That said, he expects the yield to be better than last year when rain caused significant crop loss, he said.

Voiland, of Red Fire Farm, says the farm’s Granby location has been largely insulated from the drought because of thunderstorms. That’s not the case in Montague, where he’s set up the irrigation system to pull water from the Connecticut River.

“The drought situation has been substantially worse in Montague,” Voiland said.

He said that for 2½ weeks straight around mid-July they were irrigating in Montague, and that they resumed irrigating this week.

“I don’t think we’re looking at a potentially lower yield yet,” Voiland said of the effect of the drought on their farm. “But it is a tremendous amount of extra work and effort.”

He also said that the farm has been short-staffed all year, and that the extra work has meant longer hours for he and his wife.

“It makes it that much harder to keep up with everything,” he said.

He also said that the gasoline use in the irrigation has also impacted the farm.

“The fuel bill is through the roof,” he said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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