Drought, Drought Baby

When thinking about natural disasters, I most often consider the big impactful ones: hurricanes, twisters, tornadoes, or earthquakes. In 2011, Hurricane Irene had big impact in New England and on our regional agricultural sector. Yet, it is a severe drought, like we have now, that has a sustained impact without the big one-time punch, heart wrenching headlines and recovery efforts. Those will trickle out later.

According to USDA data, Massachusetts topsoils are 25% drier so far this month (July 2016) than the 10 year mean, and there are mandatory water restrictions in many MA towns.

The National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), established at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1995, tells us:

Drought is an insidious hazard of nature. It is often referred to as a “creeping phenomenon” and its impacts vary from region to region. In the most general sense, drought originates from a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time–usually a season or more–resulting in a water shortage for some activity, group, or environmental sector. Its impacts result from the interplay between the natural event (less precipitation than expected) and the demand people place on water supply, and human activities can exacerbate the impacts of drought. Because drought cannot be viewed solely as a physical phenomenon, it is usually defined both conceptually and operationally.

In my work this season at Powisset Farm it’s a dry dust bowl in the fields caking our bodies in a fine layer of dirt, kicked up as we walk and as we weed. Our farm manager, Zhannah Porter, describes our irrigation efforts as triage, but it’s also about when, where and how we weed. I always learned weeds compete with plants for the nutrients in the soil, and therefore weeds are bad. One day recently, we intentionally left the weeds closest to the cabbage plants for risk of disrupting the cabbage roots in the process of disrupting the soil (weeds) around them.

Cabbage beds before and after:


In addition, the weeds in the beds help maintain a bit of moisture in the soil. When the soil is so dry, the web of systems that nurture the plants get put on hold and makes it hard for the crops to grow or thrive. It’s a delicate balance to support their growth without shocking them that provides me continued insight and respect for the magnitude of running a farm. Far bigger than a synagogue garden, the risks (and rewards) are also greater.

We regularly move the irrigation lines as part of this triage of crop care. We have both drip irrigation and overhead sprinklers on the farm. While it is easy to extol the benefits of drip irrigation as more efficient (less water is lost to evaporation), the sprinklers keep the plant tissues cool. When internal plant temperatures reach 115°F, plant tissues can die. On the up side, the lack of rain has limited some fungal diseases, which tend to develop after long periods of leaf wetness.

sprinklers on
Sprinklers on

As local farmers struggle to grow crops in such dry conditions, customers who try to eat local are feeling the impact as well. In the increasingly common CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model, shareholders buy into the farm at the beginning of the season, providing off-season revenue and a market regardless of crop variety, size, or quantity. They are in relationship with the farm and assume the risk of a tough growing season. Right now for those in eastern MA, or most of the Northeast US, that means smaller produce, or smaller shares of vegetables. The heat is causing many of our plants to get stressed and “bolt,” or “go to seed,” prematurely, making them quickly bitter and inedible.

Farmers also have it tough outside the CSA revenue stream, as noted by UMass Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, on the perspective of a regional food system:

This year, wholesale buyers that developed buying relationships outside of the region when early crops weren’t available are hard to get back now that crops are coming in, and prices are still low.  News of drought in the Northeast may have sent them looking elsewhere, and once buyers establish a source for the season it is hard to get them to switch to a local grower.

Most people don’t consider the impact of the weather on their food served at each meal, and nationwide distributors work hard to keep it that way. It is easy to buy and support local when it’s convenient or cost effective, but we must acknowledge the impact of our actions and maintain such principles even when times are tough and dry.

As Jews, much of our religious practice is rooted in the rhythm of the seasons and agricultural practices. Many of our holiday celebrations are based on them. From Sukkot to Passover, as the grains are developing in the semi-arid grasslands of our biblical heritage, we insert daily prayers for rain into our practice. We recognize our reliance on rain water, and on the forces of nature to nourish our crops and our community. There is language to describe the early rain (Yoreh), heavy rains (Geshem), and later season rains (Malkosh). We have a heritage rich with reverence for cause and effect that recognizes the interplay between human activities and natural cycles.

As a child my family used to talk about rain being good for the ducks, and sing about raindrops as lemon drops and gumdrops. At summer camp, a rainy day was a treat including movies and mud-sliding instead of swimming and tzofiut (scouting). Rain is good for people too.

May we all pray for rain here and now in New England, to soak through and infuse the roots of our crops. May we support our local farmers struggling to do their job, make a living, grow our food and nourish our community.