Drought in New England: Expect the Unexpected

Sumana Chintapalli

What does the climate have to do with the food system? A lot, it turns out. This relationship plays out in different ways, but lately we have been seeing an awful lot of one particular aspect. From the production side to the business side of agriculture, drought and heat are a dangerous combination.

Drought conditions have persisted since as early as last fall in some parts of New England (we knew that snowless winter had a catch!), and the summer’s intense heat has exacerbated the dry conditions. For those whose livelihoods are tied to the outdoors, including New England’s food producers, this stretch of time has been brutal. The drought and heat combination has affected farmers throughout the region, with those in Massachusetts possibly hit worst. A portion of the state has now reached “extreme drought” status – a first since 1999 when drought data started being tracked.

Putting Stress on Already Tight Margins

As a result, farmers are not only at risk of crop loss, they are also dealing with crops coming in several weeks later than they typically would since the lack of water has hindered growth. Some of the late-coming harvests are also the result of planting delays, as the drought forced some farmers to take additional time and labor to irrigate the land before planting.

Those farmers who raise animals must ensure the animals have enough to drink – while also hoping wells do not dry up. In the case of pasture-raised animals, for example grass-fed beef, the drought brings the additional challenges of a lack of pasture available for grazing as well as less grass to hay for use in fields and for feed. Adding to complications for dairy farmers is the heat-induced reduced output in cow’s milk. The challenge is doubled for dairy farmers who obtain milk from grass-fed cows.

For our New England food producers, some have taken immediate steps to alleviate the hardships posed by the combination of extreme heat and drought. These steps can come at quite a cost, both in finances and in labor.

This situation is more dire when viewed in context of the narrow margins within which many of our farmers exist. Nationwide, more than half of U.S. farms reported losses, according to the 2012 Census data. For example, farmers invest in expensive irrigation systems requiring increased inputs in the form of labor and money. For those without irrigation systems, labor and time are still precious commodities, as farmers spend additional hours watering fields. Animals must rely on the supplement of extra feed when pastures go dry, an additional expense for farmers. These solutions assume that a farmer is able to spend the resources to pursue them. What about the farmer who cannot afford more feed than they are already purchasing? For those using wells, the situation is about more than just finances, as it is unclear what they can do for immediate relief once a well is dry.

Make no mistake, what affects farmers affects all of us: we all eat. To make it even more personal, consider your own pocketbook. Supply and demand dictate that with smaller harvests due to weather extremes, our demand for food will push prices up.

Our Role in Creating Change

We all have agency to make a change ­– or, more literally, lessen the impacts of the changes that are coming with our warming climate. While it is difficult to section out which extreme weather events are caused by human activity–related climate change, a recent study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggests that both extreme heat and drought are more strongly associated with human-influenced climate change than not.

That means our current trends that have increased the rate of global warming will result in our seeing more extreme heat and more drought in the future, which New England’s farmers and food producers will be forced deal with, sometimes at great cost. If we’re going to create a robust and sustainable local food system in our region, we need to take action to support our farmers as well as reduce our own actions that might be contributing to climate change.

Many of us are already working to support that local food system by buying from our neighborhood farmers and home-grown businesses. But we can also support our local food system by taking protective action in the way we interact with the environment. Eating local foods that have not traveled far is not only a way of helping local farmers, it’s also a way of protecting our environment, utilizing less of the fossil fuels that take food from where it is grown to where it is consumed. We can also take action by using more public transportation and reducing and composting food waste, among other steps.

Take the action that speaks to you, because we all have a stake in the future of food.

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