After days of rain, the sun broke overhead as Carl Hills picked swelling fruit from a peach tree. The ground was wet but didn’t give way as he walked his farm’s rolling hills, lined with rows of fruits and vegetables.
A former orchard, Kimball Fruit Farm spans 140 acres along the border of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The land is rocky and elevated, which usually makes it harder to cultivate. But under this year’s volatile conditions, it has turned into an advantage, Hills said.
“This may be one of the few years farmers are wishing they had my land,” said Hills, whose soil has proven resistant to flooding.
Last month, as Boston burned through the hottest June ever recorded, farmers faced heatwaves and drought-like conditions. In July, farms have been drenched with rain. The Boston area has received nearly 15 inches of rain in the past 30 days, according to the National Weather Service, and Worcester has already set a new record for rainfall in the month of July.
For many local farmers, heavy precipitation means lower crop yields, more intensive labor, and a steep decrease in sales. Chris Kurth owns Siena Farms in Sudbury, a 60-acre organic vegetable farm. Unlike Kimball Fruit Farm, Siena doesn’t have an irrigation system and has many slopes and depressions for water to collect.
This year, a few acres are completely flooded, forcing workers to harvest broccoli in shin-high water. Crops harvested in the rain require far more cleaning, can become riddled with bacteria and mildew, and have a shorter storage time, Kurth said. Sometimes it makes more sense to abandon the crop completely.
While the impacts are “not devastating yet,” he’s seeing more crop loss than usual and his farmers missed several cultivation windows in hopes of avoiding the rain. While he still predicts a robust harvest, it will require a lot more work, he said.
Patricia Spence, president of Urban Farming Institute, a nonprofit that owns five farms in Mattapan and Dorchester, said the rain has thrown the harvesting schedule “by the wayside.” Because of the pandemic, the farms have fewer volunteers, so it’s a challenge to keep up with washing and weeding.
“I won’t be surprised if tomatoes are coming slower than usual this year,” said Spence, whose tomatoes in her home garden are still small and green. “But the weeds are growing just fine.”
Last year, she picked 18 quarts of raspberries from a bush in her backyard whose roots were transferred from her late grandfather’s property in Cape Cod. She dumped the last few cups into her smoothie this week, knowing this season’s harvest will barely last a few months — the rain washed them away.
“But the weeds are growing just fine,” she said.
The UFI farm stand in Mattapan is one of the few places in the area that sells affordable, fresh, and culturally appropriate produce like okra and greens for callaloo, Spence said. While their market is open every Friday rain or shine, they’ve seen sales decrease because of the rain.
Similarly, Kimball Fruit Farm depends heavily on revenue from selling produce at nine outdoor markets across the city. On a rainy day, sales can drop by 40 to 60 percent, Hills said.
“The rain really hurts us. Our regular customers are diehard — they come rain or shine — but most people are just going to go to a supermarket if it’s raining like it’s been,” Hills said. “If I were a new farmer with minimal financial backing, I’d probably be considering whether or not I should continue.”
Hills considers himself fortunate. His farm not only has a solid financial foundation, despite seeing sales plummet by 80 percent during the pandemic, but has a good irrigation system to help prevent flooding. Still, he’s seen his crops decline 10 percent and the work has been more strenuous.
Being a farmer requires constant adaptation, especially as climate change brings more extreme weather. “You rarely get the ideal,” Kurth said. “We have to assume it’s going to get less and less predictable over the years.”
But faced with this season’s challenges, many local farmers expressed resilience.
“It certainly has been difficult. We have persevered, that’s what we do,” Spence said. “That’s what all farmers do.”
“I’m an old farmer. Nothing’s going to break this farm,” Hills said. “I just hope people show up to the farmer’s markets because it’s a hard time to be a farmer.”
Julia Carlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.