Crops wilting, businesses suffer from prolonged Mass. drought

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SHERBORN >> For many families, the summer heat means backyard barbecues with plates filled to the brim with grilled burgers, hot dogs, potato salad and, of course, some fresh farm-picked corn-on-the-cob. But if you're enjoying a side of corn with your dinner this month, make sure to savor it because it's one ear that survived the brutal drought savaging local farmers.

Jim Geoghegan, owner of Sunshine Farm in Sherborn, estimates he lost between 30 and 40 percent of all the crops he planted this year. While some crops came in fine, like strawberries and summer squash, others such as raspberries and corn have been hit hard by the lack of water. As many as four acres of corn have been left dried out, he said.

While the farm has enough supplies for its on-site store, wholesale shipments "were the first to go" and pick-your-own fruit days have been limited. Geoghegan said his produce revenue for July was down between 10 and 15 percent.

"It's hot for working and it costs us more for labor and for irrigation," Geoghegan said. "Our crops are stressed. We lost a lot of beans, our peppers, eggplant and summer lettuce are all down."

Massachusetts is currently experiencing a sustained drought, with conditions in parts of Middlesex County designated as "extreme," according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

On Thursday, the Massachusetts Drought Management Task Force met in Boston to review current weather conditions for the state. Year-to-date, Boston is 7.64 inches of rainfall below normal and Worcester is 8.24 inches below normal. But the drought didn't start this summer; it reaches back to May 2015 and since then, the state has only had four months where rainfall met or exceeded the average. Combined, Boston is 14.21 inches below normal rainfall and Worcester is 14.63 inches below.

During its meeting Thursday, the Drought Management Task Force weighed the possibility of elevating the drought level for Central and Northeast Massachusetts from "drought watch" to "drought warning," the second highest on its five-level scale.

On Friday, Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Matthew Beaton declared a drought warning for central and northeast Massachusetts.

"The declaration made today represents the lasting agricultural, environmental, economic, and public safety impacts associated with prolonged drought conditions," said Beaton in Friday's press release. "The Baker-Polito Administration will continue to work with the Drought Management Task Force, government officials, and stakeholders to ensure appropriate actions are taken to minimize any harmful effects of the drought. The public is strongly encouraged to limit outdoor water usage, and integrate water-saving techniques into their daily routines."

The declaration gives the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Agricultural Resources the ability to recommend special legislation and utilize federal assistance. It also increases focus on managing threats posed by drought conditions.

"Unless we get three or four inches of rain it's going to continue," Geoghegan said. "The showers take the stress off the plants for a day, but we need a few more inches to recover."

According to Trevor Battle, an environmental health inspector with the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, many farmers are seeing more than 30 percent of crops being wiped out by the drought. The University of Massachusetts sent out a survey to farmers to determine the total damage of the drought, but results won't be known until later this month.

"Even those farmers with adequate irrigation measures are spending a lot of resources moving irrigation lines around," Battle said Thursday during the task force meeting.

Another crop hit big by the drought is cranberries, Battle said. Because cranberries are harvested late in the farming season, there are hopes the conditions will improve and the Thanksgiving favorite can be saved, but if not this year's harvest may yield fewer and smaller berries.


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