Drought puts strain on local farmers’ winter hay supply

  • Baling hay on Old Jaffrey Road in Peterborough on Sept. 15, 2020. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Baling hay on Old Jaffrey Road in Peterborough on Sept. 15, 2020. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Baling hay on Old Jaffrey Road in Peterborough on Sept. 15, 2020. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Baling hay on Old Jaffrey Road in Peterborough on Sept. 15, 2020. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Low water levels along the Gridley River in Sharon Monday morning. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Low water levels along the Gridley River in Sharon Monday morning. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The weir close to the intersection of Route 136 and Route 202 in Peterborough shows just a small trickle of water coming underneath and none over the top. Photo by David Flemming

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/15/2020 3:23:40 PM

Local farmers are struggling as the majority of New Hampshire continues to linger in drought. 

The western portion of Hillsborough county is in a moderate drought, according to the state’s drought monitor.  In moderate drought conditions, farmers have to increase irrigation, and hay and grain yields are lower than normal, which can drive up the price for feeding livestock. When it becomes a severe drought, specialty crops drop in both yield and fruit size, and fruit trees become more susceptible to insects.

While the eastern portion of the state has been hit the hardest with what is considered severe drought conditions, currently 100 percent of New Hampshire is considered in some kind of drought.

Matt LeClair, owner of Barrett Hill Farm in Mason, said the drought has affected their hay production, meant to feed their 100 head of Angus cattle over the winter.

“Hay is going to be a tough one for us to come up with,” LeClair said.

The farm usually produces about 450 round bales of hay each year for its cattle, and only managed about half that this year. Despite some extra grass plantings the farm produced this summer, it’s likely going to be a struggle to find feed for the winter.

“I can try to change rations around, but we’ll probably be culling pretty hard this year,” LeClair said. “We’ll have to see where the cards fall.”

Temple-Wilton Community Farm in Wilton was also hit hardest in its hay production, according to farmer Lincoln Geiger. Their hay production is down by about 180 bales, or a third of their usual crop.

Geiger said the farm has secured a hay supply to supplement the usual crop, but they had to go out of state to northern Vermont, where there has been more rain than in New Hampshire, to get it. But purchasing from farther away comes with additional travel costs, hay prices are at a premium, and Temple-Wilton Community Farm has had to shell out about $14,000 for hay that they usually would be bringing in from their own fields, Geiger said.

“Hay prices are really high, and transport costs are high, since none of us have any extra hay to sell,” Geiger said. “It’s going to hit small operations, small dairy operations, and horse owners pretty hard. It’s going to cost everybody more.”

Dana Ryll, of Fieldstone Farm in Rindge, said his 15 head of cattle are supplied with hay year-round, and he has already purchased his supply for the year, avoiding the hay price hike. LeClair said that while the heat and lack of rain has also had an impact on the farm’s produce, though not as severely as their hay crop.

“I say as I knock on wood,” LeClair joked.

The farm’s apples haven’t been as large as usual, and the excessive heat caused the corn crop to come in early, and stressed later plantings.

“It gave us big holes in our production schedule,” LeClair said.

Geiger said the Temple-Wilton Community Farm crops were also hurried along by the heat.

“The general trend is that plants try to make as fruit as soon as possible in the heat. So for your crops like lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, you’re going to have a shortened season,” Geiger said.

Ryll’s farm also produces maple syrup, a crop that can also be impacted highly by weather conditions, but as it is not gathered until early spring, Ryll said he hopes the drought conditions won’t be an issue by that time.

“There’s still a lot of time for it to get wet,” he said.

Ara Lynn of Amazing Flower Farm in New Ipswich said the farm has not done as much vegetable planting this year, but said for her outdoor gardens, she has had to do more irrigating to keep her crop healthy. She said the region has seen ups and downs before in terms of drought conditions. In 2008, a severe drought ran the farm’s dug well dry, and required them to invest in a back-up drilled well. It hasn’t come to that –  yet – this year.

“The dug well has been holding out for us this year,” Lynn said.

Lynn said home gardners who are struggling with the dry conditions should invest in mulch to help retain water in their soil. She said she sees the difference clearly in her own gardens between those that have been mulched and those that haven’t.

The lack of rain has also caused additional work for farmers attempting to keep their crops watered.

Gene Jonas of Hungry Bear Farm in Mason said this year’s conditions are comparable to the drought conditions in 2016. The 2016 drought was exceptionally long, lasting a total of 47 weeks, starting in June of 2016, and lingering until April of 2017, doubling as both the longest duration of drought in the last twenty years, and including the most intense period of drought in the state.

“It’s pretty drastic,” he said.

Jonas uses a drip irrigation system, which is designed to use less water by delivering a slow and steady supply to the plants root systems. He’s had to put in additional drip lines to ensure his crops were getting an adequate supply.

Ensuring this year’s harvest is important, Jonas said, because demand is up. This year has been a boom year for his Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, a program where investors purchase a share of the harvest in advance, and receive produce deliveries throughout the season. When the COVID-19 coronavirus caused shut downs in March, and there was a wide-spread run on local grocery stores, Jonas said there was a flurry of orders for farm-fresh produce that went along with it.

Jonas said he had to add more drip irrigation lines and use more water than usual, but said he was able to avoid major impacts to his crops due to the drought. Part of that, he attributed to his organic farming practices and in particular his focus on soil health.

“It’s definitely affected us, but overall we had a good year. Each year there’s going to be a certain amount of successes and failures. The key to this is soil health. If you can get a good amount of organic matter, and build it up with compost, manuring and cover cropping, a good healthy soil will hold more water.”

Both Jonas and Geiger said CSA services were in high demand this year. One of the advantages of CSAs for the farmer is that members pay in advance for their share of the harvest, which can help farmers weather events such as drought.

“It gives a little bit of a cushion,” Geiger said.

Drought impacts more than just farmers. Drought is also a contributing factor in wildfires, as dry vegetation creates kindling that can be ignited by lightening strikes, improperly put out campfires, or by discarded cigarettes. Residents should take additional care during dry conditions to fully douse any campfires and should never discard cigarettes from their car windows.

Residents should also take steps to conserve water during drought conditions. More information about water conservation efforts can be found on Drought.gov.


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