SUDBURY — Along a dusty path wending through his farm fields, Chris Kurth eased a faded white Toyota pickup streaked with dirt and mud to a stop, and checked the pulse of the beat-up blue hoses keeping his crops on life support.
Despite overcast skies, the past several days of teasing sprinkles haven’t been nearly enough to save Kurth and other Massachusetts farmers from the worst drought in memory. In a normal summer, Kurth gets one inch of rain every week. So far this summer, little more than an inch of rain has fallen on his Sudbury fields.
Kurth taps the forecast for the umpteenth time on a trusty iPhone worn holstered on his overalls, but sees little relief on the horizon.
“It’s kind of a play it day-by-day, week-by-week game right now with cutting losses,” said Kurth, owner of Siena Farms, 75 acres on a three-mile loop in Sudbury. After another day of drizzle, Kurth muses that “the rain keeps going north, west, south, everywhere but to us. . . . Maybe it’s forgotten how to rain here.”
For weeks, farmers such as Kurth have been wrangling hoses and pipes through woods, under roads, and along fields, long dusty days in high heat trying to stave off a slow-moving disaster.
Many have stretched their finances to bolster irrigation, yet without serious rain ahead, they are looking at harvesting half their normal summer yield.
“There’s going to be some catastrophic losses of various crops on different farms, and I honestly believe that some of them may be [driven to] the point where they go out of business,” said Edward Davidian, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation. “If we don’t get water soon — it’s right now.”
Most years in Massachusetts, farmers can count on nature to keep their crops watered. But most of the state remains in the grip of a “severe drought,” according to the US Drought Monitor; eastern and central Massachusetts received only about a quarter of the normal rainfall for June and July.
Many farmers don’t have extensive irrigation systems, relying instead on surface ditches and ponds that are now dried up or close to it. The scarcity is forcing farmers to choose which crops to keep alive and which to let die. They're harvesting wilting greens early, holding off planting potatoes, rationing puny carrots the best they can.
“You have farmers making decisions: ‘OK, do I pick that crop over there? Or do I water this one over here?’ ” Davidian said.
Kurth’s crops haven’t been properly soaked in months, and even if he could afford more hoses, he doesn’t have access to enough water to keep them going very long.
Without rain, Kurth is holding off on beets and potatoes that need to go in the ground now. But with just a few weeks left in the planting season, there will be no point if he lingers much longer; they will not grow.
He gambled on putting in a patch of carrots last week, stretching a watering tube thousands of feet — and past a plot of shriveling potatoes—to wet the soil. Planting a knee in the dirt, Kurth dug a finger-sized hole, checking on the carrot seedlings, like a parent fussing over a newborn.
“They’re OK for the moment, but they’ll need some water soon,” Kurth said. “It’s now or never.”
Near the carrots, a 6-foot-high sprinkler rat-tat-tats jets of water, trying to get the ground wet enough to plant beets soon. Just then, the sprinkler hisses and slows: air bubbles, indicating the pump that propels water through long lines may be low on fuel. He calls a farm hand to refuel the pump — more time spent on irrigation systems, and less cutting sunflowers or plucking peppers.
If the carrots don’t take and Kurth can’t get his other fall staples such as cauliflower in the ground, his harvest may be cut in half for the year
Luckily, this could be the best year yet for tomatoes, which thrive in the heat and are fed by a drip irrigation system that concentrates what little water is left. Other “hot crops,” such as peppers, summer squash, and eggplants, are also doing well.
The inside of Kurth’s pickup is coated with fine, brown dust: it covers steering wheel and radio, floor and farmer. His plots are spread around Sudbury, and as he goes from one to the next, Kurth drives past suburban homes with lush lawns. Hooking up to the local water district, Kurth concluded, is just too expensive.
The divided fields are difficult to connect with water. If he doesn’t get a real dousing soon, Kurth plans to run tubing half a mile from a well that feeds his greenhouse to a field down the road. He’s not sure there’s enough water pressure to pull it off.
A few weeks ago, the team rigged a system that watered five fields at once, until the stream dried up and a pump broke. All that extra time spent carefully building a contraption, only to see it fall apart.
“It is so much work to get water where it doesn’t want to go,” Tyler Rioff, Siena’s field work manager, said in a voice tinged with resignation.
These work-arounds — replayed at other farms across the state — have increased farmers’ costs and cut into their profits, said John Lebeaux, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
“They’ll pay their bills, and there just won’t be as much left over at the end of the year,” Lebeaux said.
Out in the Pioneer Valley, for example, Ryan Voiland shelled out $30,000 for another pump and more sprinklers to water his 110-acre Red Fire Farm in Montague. Now he and his workers spend much of their day hauling the heavy, bulky equipment from one spot to another.
Even then, there is no winning. For the first time in more than 20 years, Voiland in late July suspended deliveries to his community-supported agriculture customers — who make up half his sales — to give his farm hands time to catch up on weeding and fertilizing and other crucial work.
“I’m out putting up irrigation systems at one in the morning, multiple days in a row, or irrigating on weekends,” Voiland said.
“It really takes the time away from our family. It’s a constant worry that our livelihood and all of our crops are essentially at risk.”