Add to the list of extraordinary events this spring a record lack of rainfall. According to data from the National Weather Service in Gray, the middle of May to the middle of June hasn’t been this dry in the Portland region in the nearly 150 years that such records have been kept.

From May 15-16, when we had our last significant rainfall, through Thursday, this year has been “the driest by far” since at least 1871, according to meteorologist Chris Kimble of the weather service office in Gray. Most of the state is now classified as “abnormally dry,” a stage that immediately precedes the designation “drought.”

While many Mainers are likely jumping for joy over the string of warm, cloudless summer days, for area farmers the weather could pose yet another challenge in a year already complicated by the coronavirus. For now, they’re irrigating their fields – much more frequently than usual this early in the season – and hoping for a gentle, soaking rain. As of Thursday, the seven-day forecast was not promising. “I don’t see a good chance of rain until the middle or later part of the week,” Kimble said, “and even that is a little dicey.” On Saturday, the long-range forecast from the weather station was much the same.

Thunderstorms, by the way, don’t help much, or at least enough. They’re often scattered, and the rain falls so quickly, instead of seeping into the parched ground, it runs off it.

A MIXED PICTURE

For farmers, the lack of rain – less than a half-inch since mid-May, a period that would normally see 4¼ inches of precipitation – means extra costs, work and worry, much of it associated with irrigation. Tender young plants with delicate root systems, many transplanted from greenhouses earlier this month, require moist soil and frequent drinks.

Fertilizer can’t help nourish plants if the ground is too dry. When the summer’s silage corn crop, used to feed dairy cows, fails to thrive, it affects the feed supply for the entire year. Then there is deer damage; thirsty deer visit the fields and chew on irrigated crops for stored water. And – far off as it seems – even the Christmas tree market could feel the impact of the lack of rain. Without enough water now, the young trees won’t develop.

But the picture for farmers is nuanced: The hot, dry weather also means an excellent first hay cutting – and the chance to squeeze in a third in September; no battles against fungal diseases, which thrive in wet weather; great weather for pick-your-own strawberries, in season now; and – assuming the farms are irrigating (the state keeps no records on this) – warm, sunny days to promote plant growth.

Irrigating fields in what is normally the rainiest season in Maine requires time and labor for manpower, and, depending on a farm’s setup, electricity, tractor pumps or town water fees.

The job is “a big part of your day in weather like this,” said David Handley, vegetable and small fruit specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “Just when you thought you might have time to weed or do some other work on your fields, you realize you spent the whole day running around hooking up pipes and doing the maintenance an irrigation system requires and hoping your water doesn’t run dry.”

Without rain, Maine’s streams and lakes can’t recharge, of course, nor irrigation ponds refill. Stream levels across the region are already “below normal,” Kimble said. “Most of them are significantly below normal.”

VIEW FROM THE GROUND

Jim Buckle and his wife, Hannah, own Buckle Farm and orchard in Unity, where they grow apples and 7 acres of organic vegetables. Buckle also serves as president of the Maine Farm Bureau. Last year, fortuitously as it turns out, they installed a new irrigation system, which Buckle said is saving hours of work each day. For the orchard, “we’re relying on Mother Nature,” he said. The apples “require so much water. There is no way to move that volume,” which is worrisome, as “the amount of water those apples get during development is really critical.”

Still, he sounds good-humored. “Like I really needed a drought during a pandemic,” he said. This spring, the Buckles have already had to find new customers as their Boston restaurant clients disappeared overnight. They had to speedily develop systems for pre-ordering, and for boxing and bagging vegetables. In early June, they dealt with killing late frosts. And now, the sun won’t stop shining. On the plus side, the Buckles, like many Maine farmers, have seen a surge of new customers during the pandemic, as national food supply chains look less capable and more suspect.

Everybody knows plants can’t grow without water. But farmers also need water, a lot of it, to wash and cool their vegetables once they are harvested. “Our small farm on a busy wash day, it’ll be two days, probably, 500-700 gallons a day for washing,” rinsing and cooling, Buckle said.

Two Farmers Farm in Scarborough irrigates its fields with water from Stuart Brook, as it has for more than a century, according to Kelsey Herrington, who owns the farm with her husband, Dominic Pascarelli. With farming, she says, “It’s always something. This year, it’s been a lot of somethings we didn’t expect.”

Early in the season, Herrington and Pascarelli changed their crop plans in response to the pandemic, eliminating lettuce and focusing on vegetables they expected to sell better under the circumstances, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and beets. It turned out to be a bit of luck, as lettuce is a notoriously thirsty crop.

The nearby Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth relies on town water. Penny Jordan isn’t worried that supply, drawn from Sebago Lake, will run out anytime soon. “I’m dusty every night. It’s like a sandstorm out there,” she laughed when asked about the lack of rain.

“But that’s better than the other way around,” she continued. “It’s better than a wet, sloppy spring when you can’t get in the field and there is no sunlight. What’d be really nice would be to have an evening of rain, where it starts at 7 p.m. and stops before we have to start work in the morning, and it doesn’t make a lot of mud.”

‘GETTING WORSE’

For Maine to go from “abnormally dry” to “drought” status – which itself has several levels – would mean that experts are seeing damage to crops and pastures; streams, wells and reservoirs are running low; and voluntary water-use restrictions are put in place. The region’s last drought occurred in 2016. We’re not there yet, Kimble said Thursday, but the situation in Maine “is developing and getting worse.” He attributed the lack of rain to a blocking pattern in the jet stream, which makes the weather less changeable.

Though she can’t make the rain fall from the sky, Nancy McBrady, director of the state’s Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, did offer sympathy and hope to Maine farmers.

“Certainly, it’s not ideal. Our farmers have been stressed absolutely by the pandemic. Having to worry about adequate water for their crops and really their bottom line is the last thing they need,” she said. “Agriculture in Maine is made up from very hardy, persistent folks who have had a lot of hard knocks this year. We are just hoping that something breaks. Weather does break. But we are definitely not meeting that adage about Maine – wait five minutes and the weather will change. We’ve been waiting five weeks.”

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