Dairy farmer Greg Hemsarth saw his alfalfa cuttings dwindle during the summer of 2020.
Kyle Doda watched helplessly as the yield on his onion and shallot crops shrank by 25% or more.
On Emily Smith’s farm, workers battled daily to keep overhead pivots working on 4,000 acres of broccoli and cauliflower.
No matter the crop, farmers from Maine to central Pennsylvania struggled with a severe drought during the summer of 2020.
“In the 1960s we had some pretty bad droughts, and this year was just like that,” said Don Leab of Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, Massachusetts. “Our hay and corn crops were down by about one-third. We had plenty of dry weather to make hay, but not grow it.”
Drought was only one of several weather issues to strike farmers across the country in 2020. In August, a derecho wind storm flattened an estimated 850,000 acres of crops in Iowa, according to USDA. The most active Atlantic hurricane season on record repeatedly battered the Gulf Coast.
While farmers in other parts of the country dealt with wind and rain, producers in the Northeast were strapped by heat and drought. USDA issued a drought declaration for much of Maine.
Smith, who is president of Smith’s Farm in Presque Isle, Maine, said if it weren’t for irrigation, she wouldn’t have had a crop in 2020. The constant use of irrigation stressed water sources and raised input costs, she said, but there really was no other option to keep thousands of acres of broccoli and cauliflower from perishing during the dry stretch.
Smith said the region’s potato growers were hit just as hard as June precipitation amounts were 8 inches below normal — 2 ½ inches below the previous record.
“They kept forecasting showers all summer, like someone was holding a carrot in front of you,” she said. “But the rain never happened. We were irrigating new plantings while trying to harvest at the same time. Nothing was normal in 2020.”
In Millville, Pennsylvania, Hemsarth was able to make just two and a half cuttings of alfalfa instead of four or five, and the tonnage on his corn silage was down by 20% thanks to the drought. With less alfalfa baled, Hemsarth increased the silage component in his feed even though the dry weather reduced the supply of that forage as well.
“We have a partnership with my uncle that we can buy as much corn silage each year as we need,” Hemsarth said. “This year we bought all he had.”
While the fields felt the stress of the drought, Hemsarth also watched the water use in his freestall dairy barn. There is a well dedicated just for the building, and Hemsarth avoided any issues at the barn, but it was close.
“We were worried about it,” he said. “The water table was just getting so low.”
Heading into the spring of 2021, Hemsarth has taken a step to make sure the effects of the summer drought are not long lasting.
He talked his uncle into planting triticale as a cover crop on the silage ground. If the small alfalfa crop from 2020 runs out before the 2021 crop is ready to cut, Hemsarth can use the triticale to make up for the gap in his forage supply.
“It should be ready to come off before the first alfalfa cutting, so it’s nice to have that option,” he said.
Planning ahead for a weather emergency — such as the lingering effects of a drought — is a wise and necessary move in today’s changing climate, according to Tom Gordon, public service coordinator for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
The last major drought to strike Maine occurred in 1999-2000, he said, and the 2020 dry stretch may have been worse — especially if the winter doesn’t produce a snowpack to replenish the water table next year.
“We’re concerned about keeping our farmers resilient in changing weather conditions. They need to plan ahead, and that includes things like using cover crops and no-till to increase the moisture-holding capacity of the soil,” Gordon said.
Prior to 2020, Gordon added, about two-thirds of Maine’s cropland was still farmed with conventional tillage. The recent drought may change that as Maine farmers incurred increased costs to operate irrigation and suffered significant yield losses.
Potato producers in Maine’s Aroostook County saw a 20% yield reduction due to the drought, Gordon said. The state’s wild blueberry crop was hit with a 50% decrease, and apple orchards produced much smaller fruit than normal.
“It was a challenge for all commodities. We became aware of the drought in mid-May, and it lasted right through harvest in October,” Gordon said. “The drought was extreme in most of the state.”
Doda, who owns 1000 Stone Farm in Brookfield, Vermont, spent the summer irrigating his onion, scallion and shallot crops.
In the end, the yield was down but the quality was still good, he said.
“We’re in what was one of the drier counties this summer, so when we started irrigating the crops, we were just trying to keep them alive,” Doda said.
Even though he managed a decent harvest, Doda cautioned that the effects of the dry weather lingered through the fall, and maybe beyond.
He was hoping for an early snowpack to protect the ground and insulate his garlic and asparagus plantings, but just like the summer, the precipitation in the fall never materialized.
“I’m a little nervous because up here we would usually be covered in snow by now,” Doda said. “But when you have bare ground and temperatures dipping to the single digits, that’s certainly not ideal for any root system that’s overwintering.”
The drought has also strained supplies of livestock feed.
Leab grows orchardgrass for baleage or dry hay that he sells to horse owners and nearby dairy farms. In 2020 the later cuttings of hay shriveled to next to nothing during the dry weather, and hay is in short supply in the area.
“You can’t find it,” he said. “Even the pastures dried up, and people started feeding hay earlier.
“I have long-term customers that I’ve had to buy hay elsewhere just to keep them supplied. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Even the horticulture industry wasn’t exempt from the scarcity of rain during the summer. At Moore’s Hill Lilacs in Potsdam, New York, the expansive sales garden with 50 varieties was showing the signs of drought stress this summer.
Cliff Westerling, who owns the business with his wife, Janice, said the dry weather posed one challenge, but the accompanying heat of the summer made the situation much worse. Lilacs can bud out early in the heat, Westerling said, and workers constantly watered the plants when things got hot and dry.
It was critical to keep the plants healthy, Westerling said, because plants with brown, drooping leaves don’t attract many buyers.
“Here in St. Lawrence County we were considered an extreme drought area, and if we didn’t water, we would’ve lost some of our older plants,” he said. “Some lilac varieties can live 100, 200 years and the older plants normally do fine in a dry stretch, but not this year. It just wasn’t a normal drought and it impacted everyone, from us to hay farmers to the dairies around here.”