NORTH ANDOVER >> Standing in front of a patch of strawberry plants about 10 inches shorter than they would be during a wetter summer, Gov. Charlie Baker and other state officials on Thursday urged Massachusetts residents to conserve water and support their local farmers in the face of a widespread and significant drought.
Speaking from Smolak Farms, a family farm that grows berries, Christmas trees and peaches, among other crops, Baker outlined a series of steps the state is taking to respond to the unusually dry weather, which he said shows "few signs of relenting."
"We obviously can't control the conditions that are presented before us, but we can continue to monitor and coordinate and where possible and where necessary and appropriate, prepare in our response and make sure that we communicate effectively with the public and with our federal, state and local partners on what we can do to mitigate the damage," Baker said.
The United States Drought Monitor on Thursday morning more than quadrupled the area of the state considered to be under an "extreme drought."
All of Suffolk County, almost all of Essex County, most of Middlesex and Norfolk counties, and a slice of Plymouth County -- a total of 16.86 percent of the state's landmass and a sizable chunk of its population -- are now in an "extreme drought."
The U.S. Drought Monitor last week put a total of 3.66 percent of the state in the "extreme drought" category, a classification that a National Weather Service meteorologist said was unprecedented.
As government agencies dealing with agriculture, the environment, the economy and public safety take steps to address impacts of the drought, Baker said the state would continue to monitor the progress of the drought and would seek federal assistance if conditions reach the point where Massachusetts would become eligible.
"Most of the rules around federal assistance ... are categorically driven and my view on this one is pretty simple having gone through this with the snow," he said. "If we hit whatever the categorical requirements are, we would file."
The state Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR), working with the University of Massachusetts, circulated earlier this month to farmers a survey assessing the extent to which Bay State farmers have lost crops due to the drought.
If the survey results show a crop loss of 30 percent, the state would be able to apply for some federal relief, including low-interest loans to farmers, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton said Thursday.
The Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development plans to refocus a larger portion of small business technical assistance grants to Community Development Corporations in areas affected by the drought and will work with state officials to develop a Massachusetts Drought Emergency Loan Fund. The fund will provide working capital to family farms and small businesses affected by the drought.
Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash said such measures will serve as a "bridge to a point in time where we may be asking the federal government to step in with resources."
Massachusetts has been under an official drought declaration since July 1 and the arid conditions have been blamed for contributing to wild fires, an outbreak of gypsy moths, higher rates of ant infestation, and an elevated population of mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus.
In July, Boston saw 0.87 inches of rain, more than 2.5 inches shy of the monthly average of 3.43 inches of rainfall, according to the National Weather Service. Through Wednesday, the city had received 0.82 inches of rain in August.
Beaton last Friday expanded the scope of the state's own drought declaration to include all of Massachusetts and elevated the central and northeast parts of the state to a drought warning status, one step shy of a drought emergency.
The Baker administration is encouraging the public to use water-saving techniques — including shortening shower times, sweeping outdoor spaces instead of cleaning them with hoses and limiting watering of lawns — and to be mindful of the dry conditions when using grills or fires outdoors.
Baker said the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency has been in touch with vendors who supply bottled potable and non-potable water, and with the National Guard to discuss the potential of transporting water in tankers if that becomes necessary to replenish water supplies on a large scale.
"We have not yet reached the point where demand for water exceeds supply in significant ways, but we are doing worst-case scenario planning," MEMA Director Kurt Schwartz said.
As the drought languishes through the already short growing season, Massachusetts farmers have been hit particularly hard.
Michael Smolak, the third-generation owner of Smolak Farms, said this year's drought is "as bad as I've ever seen it, and I was born in 1952, so I've been around for a few years." Smolak said his strawberry plants, which would usually stand at about a foot high in this point of the season, are only about two inches tall right now.
Frank Carlson has been keeping an eye on his apple crop at Carlson Orchards, the Harvard farm that his parents Walter and Eleanor started in 1936 and where he is concerned that the drought will result in smaller-than-normal apples.
"The fruits right now don't look big enough. The question we have is how big are they going to get," Carlson said Thursday. "If this was an exact science we'd have it made. But it doesn't work that way."
Apples grow in size "tremendously" in the final two to three weeks before the harvest, Carlson said. He and his brothers Robert and Bruce plan to start picking McIntosh in less than a month, he said.
"I do think the size is going to be down, but the apples should be good, sweet and juicy. And we'll have plenty of apples for pick-your-own," Carlson said. "Are we going to fill the storages? No, I don't think we are. Last year was a bumper crop. This year we expected a bit of a downturn, but it could be more of a downturn than usual."
Carlson and other farmers said the drought and its affects on their apple crop comes about six months after they lost their entire peach crop to a deep freeze in February and an April frost.
"First time in my life, not a peach to be found in the orchard," Carlson said. "We knew that was coming and then the drought came on top of it."
Crop loss is not the only detrimental impact of the drought on Massachusetts farms. The lack of rainfall and water use restrictions forced farmers this year to spend more time and energy on irrigation.
"We were watering our raspberries and blueberries by hand versus using our irrigation setup because our source of water from irrigation pumps was used up," Ann Harris, who owns Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, said. "We have significant labor costs this year because of it."
And the weather has taken a toll on farm workers, too.
"It's been a horribly hot environment to work in all summer. The people working outside have been really taking the brunt of the weather. It's been brutal some days, day after day after day of 90-degree glowing sun and dusty, hot dirt," Harris said. "Hopefully next year will be better."
Now Harris, Carlson and commercial farmers across the state face a conundrum: their crops depend on the rain that seems so overdue, but the pick-your-own business depends on rain-free weekends to attract customers to the orchards.
"Now we've really got to hope for good weather during the harvest," Carlson said. He added, "What we need now is some good clear sunny days to get some color on the fruit and some nice cool nights."