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‘I’m gambling all the time with my crops’: Farmers struggle to adapt to drought

A corn plant grows out of the dry soil of a field that Dracut farmer David Dumaresq cannot irrigate. Dwindling supplies of pond water leave in doubt whether this second crop will reach maturity.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

David Dumaresq, owner of Farmer Dave’s in Dracut, has always said late-season corn tastes the best, but his customers seem to disagree.

“Everybody wants it in July and August,” Dumaresq said.

He finished the season’s first harvest in early August, with more to be picked between now and October. That all adds up to about 20 acres of corn picked by the end of the year — assuming there’s enough water to go around.

Corn, potatoes, and other “water hogs,” as Dumaresq calls them, are suffering in the extended drought. Because of their shallow roots, vegetable crops struggle to stay hydrated during ongoing drought conditions and heat waves. But at orchards, where the roots of fruit-bearing trees reach deeper ground water, farmers say the dry summer hasn’t been so bad.

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At Farmer Dave’s, most of the water is pulled from the ground by diesel pumps, Dumaresq said. But after weeks of drought, he estimates the water table — the depth where the soil is saturated — has dropped 7 to 8 feet, leaving only about 3 feet of water accessible to the pumps.

“Up until two or three weeks ago, we were pumping over 50,000 gallons of water per day,” Dumaresq said. “And now we’re irrigating less than 20,000 gallons a day.”

David Dumaresq stands in a pond in a spot where he'd be underwater if the pond were full.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Maturing corn needs about an inch of water each week, Dumaresq said. On just 1 acre of land, that comes out to more than 24,000 gallons.

Across Dumaresq’s 100 acres of farmland, 20 acres lack irrigation and typically rely on natural water sources — rain — leaving “no option” in a severe drought like this, he said. The rest is a careful balancing act between the needs of different crops — and what they can fetch at the market.

“If you have a field that you know isn’t going to be ready for another month, and that water source is drying up,” he said, “Yeah, you might as well just give up on that corn.”

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At Medway Community Farm, manager Todd Sandstrum said the crops are “surviving,” but not thriving.

Medway has three properties along the town’s Chicken Brook, which usually provides a steady flow of irrigation water. At their Adams Street satellite, Sandstrum said, the creek has recessed so far that water is inaccessible. In early August, he said, things have only gotten worse.

“We have filed for an emergency agricultural use permit with the town of Medway to hook up to municipal water,” he said. “In a crisis situation, you have to start to get creative.”

Sandstrum said the farm is now using municipal water three days a week, but that source could be rolled back if the drought worsens and the town reassesses its water needs.

Sandstrum joined the community farm in January, so when Adams Street went dry, he went to the farm’s board of directors to ask if there had ever been the need for a “plan B.” There never was.

“It’s been the opposite,” Sandstrum said. “That site tends to always be wet.”

Dracut farmer David Dumaresq inspects a pond where the water level has dropped several feet. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Like Farmer Dave’s, Medway Community Farm uses gasoline-powered pumps to pull water, meaning high fuel prices also are cutting into the bottom line.

Some crops — tomatoes, peppers, and a few tropicals — have been doing well in the heat, but Sandstrum said the dry soil may be an issue for fall harvest crops, which are just starting to germinate. He said he worries that the first heavy rains will just trickle into the river instead of soaking into the “hardpan” earth.

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“Unless we have a long, slow, steady rain for a day,” Sandstrum said, “my fear is that it’s just going to hit the dirt and run.”

East Bridgewater’s C.N. Smith Farm has muscled through heat waves and drought conditions without suffering much loss. However, Christian Smith, the farm’s co-owner, said it wasn’t without difficulty.

“Any kind of heat for an extended period is stressful to crops and it’s very difficult to keep them irrigated without any rain,” Smith said. “We have to go out and put the water on [the crops] ourselves.”

Smith said the farm uses a pair of weather stations, which measure rainfall, temperature, and soil moisture on his land to monitor conditions and protect the most vulnerable crops like corn, pumpkins, and onions.

Smith said the farm also has a natural river that gives the property access to water during dry spells. For produce that grows on trees like apples, Smith is equipped to keep the sun at bay.

“You can spray sunscreen on an apple that’s not like sunscreen we use,” Smith said. “It’s a white reflective calcium that’ll reflect the light and help to reduce the incidence of sunburn on apples.”

Glenn Cook, owner of Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, is adapting to long-lasting heat waves by getting creative: making cider with fruit that would otherwise go bad under the sun.

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When steamy temperatures stopped customers from visiting the farm to pick their own raspberries during the July heat wave, Cook said Cider Hill employees gathered the fruit themselves before sun scalding turned it white.

“All the crops left on the bushes and the trees for [customers] now have to be picked by us,” Cook said. “Then we can turn them into fruit varieties of our hard cider with them.”

Cider Hill Farm also has effective irrigation systems to mitigate the damaging effects of drought. Through a combination of deep wells, thousands of feet of underground pipes, and a variety of above-ground irrigation methods, Cider Hill has avoided crop loss despite moderate and critical drought statuses across Massachusetts.

“For irrigating an orchard, we water only the roots and not between the trees. The grass between the trees is brown, but the trees still look good,” Cook said. “We’re very blessed that we haven’t lost any crop to being dry.”

Like other orchards, Mother Nature has been kind to Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow. Thanks to naturally occurring sources of water on the farm’s property, the drought has been bearable.

“There are three ponds on the property that are pretty substantial. We’ve just been very fortunate that we haven’t run them dry in the last couple of years,” said Chelcie Martin, general manager of the orchard.

The Stow agritourism spot invites customers to pick fruit such as apples, peaches, and berries. Martin explained that fruit-bearing trees are less susceptible to drought than vegetable crops.

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In fact, because of their ponds and an additional swamp, the crops at Honey Pot Hill have even seen benefits.

“I think our peaches taste like sunshine, like more than ever, which is just unbelievable,” Martin said. “I didn’t think that there would be a positive coming out of this, but [these are] the best peaches I’ve ever had in my life.”

At Farmer Dave’s orchard, the peaches are also “looking great,” even if a little smaller than usual, Dumaresq said. Still, this year’s drought may mean fewer blossoms — and with that, less fruit next year.

“I never go to casinos,” Dumaresq said. “Because I’m gambling all the time with my crops.”

Globe graphic
A drip irrigation line is set to water a field at Farmer Dave's in Dracut if the nearby pond has enough water in it to pump out. Lane Turner/Globe Staff



Daniel Kool can be reached at daniel.kool@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dekool01. Katie Mogg can be reached at katie.mogg@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @j0urnalistkatie