I try to take a walk around the farm every once in a while during the growing season because when I am in a vehicle or on the tractor I often pay attention to other things, or my thoughts wander to why this field or that is faring better or worse than expected, and I begin ruminating on why. I’ll even worry about what I am not worrying about.
This past year was particularly worrisome and maybe the most fretful growing season in my experience. While there were copious bright sunny days that brightened the heart of anyone not in my profession, there was also a corresponding dearth of atmospheric moisture. It did not rain on our farm for so long that I couldn’t even remember where I left my rain shirt. Even with irrigation, most of our tillage was chokingly xeric. Trees were cracking. The forest understory was sere and remains so. Two of our ground-water ponds dried up and one of them was so dry that the bottom crazed. We are talking major-league, West Texas, almost unimaginable drought. The coyotes were licking the condensation off the over-worked irrigation lines, they were so thirsty.
When these sorts of conditions exist, self-flagellatory thoughts about how we planned for the spring and summer seasons run wild. Why were my seemingly conservative estimates for the harvest, for wholesale markets, so excessively rosy? Did I miss something? How can I not find myself in the same predicament next year? Where did I leave my crystal ball? What I used to love (and have come to resent) about this business are the variations from predictability. This year the weather went so far off the rails that some farmers will not recover, and others will suffer long-term damage from which they will harvest serious thoughts like “Why do I persist in this business?” Even those who farm just for the lifestyle are asking themselves why.
If this is our first slap in the face on global warming, one would have to conclude that farming as we have known it in eastern MA is baked. There is simply not enough water here for agriculture and all other uses, either from the declining aquifer or from municipal resources. The St. Lawrence is not the Colorado and there is no aquaduct. This year’s revelatory experience is that the heavens are no longer, if ever they were, reliable even on averages. New cultural practices are required which conserve and/or recycle crop water, perhaps have shorter maturation periods, and/or there are new hybrids that are more drought-tolerant. And regardless of late October’s rains, we’re still facing extreme drought and will be through the remainder of the year.
There is no question that our agriculture is adaptive and that our New England farmers are creative, dedicated and resourceful. But above and beyond what can be done on the land and whether or not we have another growing season like the one just past, farmers, municipalities, the states and the region need to begin to harmonize policy that supports and encourages better food and nutrition programs, market cooperation and university extension research for the benefit of us all. Individual entrepreneurial growers will increasingly feel the bind of intolerable growing conditions unless there is broad-spectrum effort to educate producers and consumers about the effects—occasionally calamitous—of a really bad year.
John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston's last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children's program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.