Many farmers will not get a second crop of hay this season, according to local reports. Farm ponds have dried up. Some crops never reached maturity, and thirsty animals drink water that is desperately needed for plants.
The drought of 2016, which began in April – the month that brings May flowers – has been moderate to severe in southern Maine, climatologists say. Last week and last weekend brought no relief.
Harvey Jewett, who was born on his father Pleem Jewett’s farm at 32 Elmwood Road in Pownal 64 years ago, has seen nothing like it. Jewett was not around, of course, when fire destroyed much of Bar Harbor during the drought of 1947.
“It’s like the Desert of Maine out here in my garden,” Jewett said, referring to the popular Freeport tourist attraction. “There are a lot of ruts in the fields, and this is the first time I’ve gone out back without my tires getting wet. I’ve got clay on my land, so it’s usually moist. We’ve got nothing.”
Jewett said he grows enough hay on his land to keep his small farm, where he raises pigs, chickens and a garden, going. He’ll get a second crop of hay only on a quarter of his 60 acres. Instead of 1,200 bales of hay, he’ll get about 200, Jewett figures. But he’s only gone up on his sale price for a bale of hay from $3.50 to $4.
A few miles away on Leighton Road, where Susan Mack and Holly Morrison run Tir na nOg Farm, the drought warning signs came early. Mack and Morrison were fortunate to be at home when they saw a forest fire spreading quickly toward their property in May, a time when the forest usually is moist and full of vegetation.
“We called the fire department,” Mack said. “There could have been a lot of damage. It spread really fast.”
Mack and Morrison raise raise livestock and grow organic vegetables on Tir na nOg Farm. They have beef cattle, pigs and chickens and sell their meat and produce to farmers markets in Cumberland and Falmouth. Mack, who gave up her position as family services coordinator at Freeport Community Services in the spring of 2015 to farm full time, said she and Morrison, as well as their help, had to dispense with daily showers. They have a good well and have been able to water the plants in their town greenhouses, but the outside plants have suffered. The well showed signs of going dry in July, but storms – few and far between as they’ve been – have replenished it.
But they’re getting by, and have secured enough hay for the winter.
“While this has been hard for us, it hasn’t been extraordinary,” Mack said. “I know people who have had a lot worse problems.”
Mack said that the plants in the greenhoues – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, flowers, lettuce, squash and melons – have required much water. Squash, corn and beans on the hillside are suffering. They got virtually no blueberries.
“I ate the whole crop for breakfast one morning,” Mack said. “I just don’t water outside. I just didn’t dare to spare the water. I’m praying for rain.”
Mack and Russell have benefitted from good planning and old-fashioned cooperation among farmers. Their three cows are pasturing, by arrangement, on a neighbor’s pond on Allen Road. The six pigs are at what Mack called “summer camp,” pig pastures on another farm. But Tir na nOg Farm has the same problem as Jewett, and there’s no more grass for their two bull calves.
“We’ve already gone to hay,” Mack said. “The grass is just not regenerating.”
Kathy Shaw, president of the Cumberland Farmers Market Association, said what everyone else is saying regarding the drought. The association of approximately 20 members runs local farmers markets.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” Shaw said. “It might be a boon to tourism, but it is certainly not a boon for the folks who have to making a living from the land.”
Shaw, whose three farm ponds at her Auburn farm have dried up, said she normally brings in Massachusetts peaches to sell. She has none this year. And Shaw is worried that the lack of rain could have longer-lasting effects.
“Rain would help everything, including the groundwater levels,” she said. “We could be looking at the wind blowing over our topsoil, and there’s lots of ramifications with that, including erosion.”
Because Susan Mack and Holly Morrison have been able to water the plants inside their three greenhoues at Tir na nOg Farm in Pownal, the string beans are doing just fine. The well showed signs of going dry in July, but Mack and Morrison are getting by.
Susan Mack holds up a squash plant that has not produced a single squash at her Pownal farm, as she and her partner Holly Morrison have not been able to water their outside plants.
Harvey Jewett won’t have trouble selling his hay from his small farm on Elmwood Road in Pownal. Despite the drought, Jewett has raised his price by only 50 cents a bale, to $4.