Maine farmers look to save water as they confront drier weather and heavier storms
Farming has been a way of life in Franklin County since the late 1700s, when settlers planted corn, wheat and potatoes. In 1815, a volcano on the other side of the world disrupted the world's climate, causing frosts and snowstorms in New England during the summer of 1816 that made farming impossible.
More recently, human-caused climate change is creating a new set of challenges, and the U.S. Drought Monitor reports that Franklin County is experiencing abnormally dry to severe drought conditions.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
Melissa Shea's wind turbine hums on top of her cabin on the Mountain Farm in New Vineyard. A gravity-fed well 1,000 feet up the mountain supplies her water.
A logger and farmer, Shea cleared her land herself to grow organic vegetables, herbs, and hops here. Three springs feed the well and while she has never run out of water, she says she wants to improve her irrigation system to better target her crops. This year she'll install an upgrade with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
"The irrigation systems that they're funding are for drip irrigation which is very focused on exactly the plant you want it to water and you can set it on a timer so it waters early in the morning before it gets really hot, so there's a real benefit to the drip system," she says.
The federal initiative has two assistance programs that help farmers install or upgrade irrigation systems. If a farmer's application is approved, an engineer visits the farm, designs the pump, pipeline, and sprinkler or micro-irrigation system.
The contract covers 75% of the cost of the work and is paid up front by the farmer, who is paid back once the work is completed and approved by the NRCS.
The challenge for farmers isn't just dealing with drier conditions; they're also facing something else.
"The Northeast region is seeing the greatest increase in heavy precipitation events than any region in the U.S.," says Maine State Climatologist Dr. Sean Birkel.
Birkel says that since 1895, Maine's annual rainfall has increased by six inches, with more extreme rain events in spring and fall.
You might wonder how a drought could result in more rainfall. But Birkel says the warming atmosphere, equal to 3.2 degrees hotter here in Maine since 1895, enhances evaporation that reduces surface water and dries out soil.
The 2020 drought, Birkel says, was the culmination of three types of drought that occur when there's a prolonged rainfall deficit that affects growers along with water sources like lakes and, ultimately, water tables.
"The meteorological drought began in May, then the agricultural drought began in June and certainly July when soil started to dry out, and then the hydrologic droughts, the impacts of that, started to be seen by late summer," he says.
Erica Haywood, of Love Grown Agricultural Research, sold her hemp flower oil, balm and tinctures at the winter's farmer's market in Farmington on a recent Saturday afternoon. She's one of eight growers regularly at the market.
She has her own lab and creates her products to sell at her farm, online and at the market.
Haywood says she doesn't till her soil because keeping the ground intact is the best way to preserve moisture. She also layers organic matter in with her crops because it absorbs water and keeps the plants hydrated.
Finally, she irrigates. Haywood says she's learned the damage a drought can do, and she believes every measure she's taken is needed to adapt to dry spells.
"In 2020, in one leased field, hemp yield was one-fifth of the minimum expected," she says. "We didn't irrigate and felt drought was the primary factor."
A few stalls down at the farmer's market, Amy LeBlanc of White Hill Farm says she uses raised beds for her crops. For her, irrigation isn't practical. Instead she uses other organic techniques to keep her vegetables hydrated and doesn't till the soil around her crops.
"We use a lot of mulch and a lot of companion style cover crops which shade the plants and help keep them cool and retain moisture longer, and no till — which maintains the structure of the soil," LeBlanc says.
Other farmers say they use manure to keep moisture in the soil or plant crops in hoop houses to protect them from punishing droughts. Still others say they've been lucky enough to have property that sits below a ridge or along a river that has helped them survive lengthy dry spells.
Birkel says climate models are constantly recalibrating. New data can help predict the future to some degree, but even if dramatic steps are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cool the planet, it won't be possible to turn back time.
"Even stopping the emissions, there's still inertia in the system, and there's response time. The warming of the oceans, we can't take that back," he says.
Both farmers and scientists say climate change poses a tremendous challenge, but they're not giving up on figuring out ways to adapt.