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As drought persists in Northeast, farmers face uncertain future

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When we think about drought in America, we don't usually think about New England. This summer, that region has gotten very little rain compared to a typical year, and that's made wildfires more frequent and forced farmers to make tough choices.

From member station WBUR in Boston, Miriam Wasser brings us this story.

MIRIAM WASSER, BYLINE: To put it bluntly, it kind of just stopped raining this summer. Parts of the Northeast that typically get nine inches of rain over June, July and August have gotten a fraction of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS WALKING THROUGH DRY SOIL)

WASSER: On Dave Dumaresq's vegetable farm in Dracut, Mass., things are pretty bad. The cornstalks are brown and the ears are smaller than usual. Instead of a carpet of green leaves, the potato field is patchy.

DAVE DUMARESQ: So we're basically at the point now where we're selecting which crops to continue to grow and which crops to basically allow to suffer.

WASSER: Take the corn. He staggers the planting and harvesting and has gotten two OK pickings so far. But the next two, he says, are a crapshoot.

DUMARESQ: So basically, I'm not watering those last two plantings. I'm hoping for rain.

WASSER: Dumaresq is the founder and owner of Farmer Dave's. The 100-acre mostly organic farm is in the epicenter of the drought this summer. Dumaresq relies on small manmade ponds like this one for irrigation water. He peers over the rocky edge. Twelve feet down, a gasoline-powered pump grumbles as it sucks up the liquid dregs.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUMP RUNNING)

WASSER: The water that's left is only a couple inches deep. Normally, there'd be several feet of water at this time of year.

Farming in much of New England right now is a series of tough decisions. Does he completely neglect the corn to give the potatoes the water they need? And what about the asparagus? It won't be ready to harvest until next spring.

DUMARESQ: Basically, I'm letting the asparagus go. But I know that I'm reducing next spring's harvest to try to get more potatoes for this winter.

WASSER: Dumaresq is not alone. Farmers in much of New England are struggling, and many have reported significant crop losses. It's in sharp contrast to last summer, when New England got a ton of rain.

DAVID BOUTT: This kind of year-to-year variability that we see in precipitation seems to be becoming more pronounced.

WASSER: David Boutt is a hydrology professor at UMass Amherst. He says if you look back in history, it's typical for the Northeast to have wet periods and dry periods.

BOUTT: Generally speaking, you know, we would have a dry period, let's say, once in every 10 years.

WASSER: But in the last decade or so, things have changed. He says we're seeing more frequent, rapid-onset and acute droughts. Scientists say it's hard to attribute any of this directly to climate change. But as humans warm the planet, we're changing the atmospheric patterns that shape our weather systems. And our weather extremes are getting more extreme.

Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux is the Vermont state climatologist.

LESLEY-ANN DUPIGNY-GIROUX: Nowadays, when we think about drought conditions, it's not just the water, but it's also how hot the temperatures are. And so flash droughts and high temperatures and dry air kind of go together.

WASSER: Dupigny-Giroux says drought is a systems-level phenomenon. Soil moisture, the rate at which surface water evaporates, even how much water plants suck in through their roots and exhale as vapor - it all matters, too. What this all means for farmers like Dumaresq is uncertainty - and added costs. A drought year like this summer can cost him an extra 60 to $100,000. He has to hire extra people to run the irrigation equipment constantly.

DUMARESQ: And you always hope that the rains are going to start to fall eventually.

WASSER: Until then, he says he'll just keep pumping whatever water he can get. For NPR News, I'm Miriam Wasser. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Miriam Wasser - WBUR
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