Berkshire farms and wells hit hard by worst drought in a decade

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By Wednesday, Sep 28 News  4 Comments
Heather Bellow
Barbieri Reservoir off Monument Valley Road in Great Barrington is far below its capacity. A water level monitor, according to neighbor Michele DiSimone, is now entirely visible.

Sheffield — At the height of the summer growing season, Ted Dobson will usually ship 500 pounds of greens to Boston every week. But because of a drought across New England, Dobson said even in Sheffield, where subsoil moisture is high, his Equinox Farm greens weren’t structurally hardy enough to make the trip.

“It was embarrassing to be on so many menus,” Dobson said. “I wouldn’t go back to Boston until the greens were 100 percent.”

Equinox Farm owner Ted Dobson weighs greens headed for Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge. The drought weakened the structural integrity of his greens, making them impossible to ship to Boston every week last summer. Photo: Heather Bellow.

Equinox Farm owner Ted Dobson weighs greens headed for Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge. The drought weakened the structural integrity of his greens, making them impossible to ship to Boston every week last summer. Photo: Heather Bellow.

Without Boston, Dobson lost $50,000 during the precious sales window of July and August.

Dobson, who has farmed for 30 years and grows 2,020 pounds of baby arugula and spinach, and Asian greens in July and August alone, said after a snowless winter and rainless spring, there was still enough moisture in Sheffield soil for germination and growth.

“But in June I started to get worried, as the demand for moisture increased with the heat,” he said. The greens simply didn’t get enough water to be “structurally sound.”

By mid-July the lagoon he irrigates from dried up.

And there was even more to worry about, Dobson said. “Insects and weeds thrive in compromised conditions; so we had drought and pestilence.”

Farm Girl Farm’s Laura Meister said, while some vegetables did well last summer, the lack of adequate water affected vegetables she needs to sell into the fall. Photo: Heather Bellow.

Farm Girl Farm’s Laura Meister said, while some vegetables did well last summer, the lack of adequate water affected vegetables she needs to sell into the fall. Photo: Heather Bellow.

Local restaurant and store sales for Equinox were strong, however, since greens harvested and consumed the same day were holding up fine.

Laura Meister of Farm Girl Farm rents three acres from Dobson where, Meister says, sharing an infrastructure really helps. Meister said her summer vegetables that like heat—peppers and tomatoes, for instance–did great, though her yield was lower. She was lucky, she said, to have also grown pea shoots and microgreens last summer, which she could “control.”

“Not having all your eggs in one basket helps,” she said of using “diverse farming as built-in insurance.” The drought’s financial impact will hit her more this fall, she said, since the turnips, carrots, radishes and beets that need “decent water” weren’t so bountiful.

Experts consider this drought the worst in a decade. The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows “extreme drought” conditions mostly in eastern Massachusetts and southeastern New Hampshire, and those areas are under voluntary or mandatory water use restrictions. While there are no restrictions in the Berkshires, some people have been forced to conserve.

“The sediment started kicking up,” said Great Barrington resident Michele DiSimone, who said it was a sign her well water was nearing the bottom.

Barbieri Pond off Monument Mountain Road, when full, in August 2015. Photo: Michele DiSimone.

Barbieri Pond off Monument Mountain Road, when full, in August 2015. Photo: Michele DiSimone.

DiSimone lives on Monument Valley Road next to Barbieri Reservoir, which, in her 16 years there, she said she has never seen this low. The length of a water level marker in the pond is fully visible, she added.

“We are in super conservation mode,” she said. “We’re not taking showers at home and we’re getting water from the Co-op.” DiSimone said her family has been showering at Berkshire South Regional Community Center or at a friend’s house. Any showers at home are timed for one minute, and dishwashing water is collected in the sink to flush toilets. She said sediment can break water pumps and heaters.

She said she has talked to “so many people having the same issue,” including a Monterey resident whose well dried up.

“We’re not out yet, so cross your fingers,” she said.

Longtime biodynamic farmer David Inglis, who is presently growing greens for Equinox, says he’s not too worried about one difficult season, but the impact of a similar drought pattern over multiple years.

“Many areas that go through periodic droughts have plants, and trees, that have adapted; we do not,” he said. “Watershed health and the dynamics of soil moisture movement in our area are very connected to forest health.”

Equinox Farm in Sheffield. Both Equinox and Farm Girl Farm, which rents land here, are still suffering the financial effects of a drought that wreaked havoc for farms across New England last summer. Photo: Heather Bellow.

Equinox Farm in Sheffield. Both Equinox and Farm Girl Farm, which rents land here, are still suffering the financial effects of a drought that wreaked havoc on farms across New England last summer. Photo: Heather Bellow.

I visit Dobson on his farm after a surprising cloudburst the day before. As he weighs greens and boxes them for transport to Kripalu in Stockbridge, he says a number of recent rain showers missed this part of Sheffield. But he is hopeful.

“September might be the silver lining,” he says.

Like most farmers across the region suffering under such conditions, Dobson said he “had to be strategic about what would get watered.”

It was even harder for farmers in the Pioneer Valley who had to “sacrifice whole fields,” fields that “were withering up and dying,” he added.

He sows about one half acre per week. And last summer it was a challenge.  “Sometimes it was like trying to germinate in hot beach sand,” he said, adding that the pressurized gun he waters with just couldn’t cover it and he had to use some garden-type sprinklers to get germination.

He said the summer conditions taught him so much about water conservation.

“There was still water to tap into,” he said, since so much is held and restored in the Housatonic River Valley and fed by the Taconic Mountain Range. “But I realized how much I waste with my [water] gun — it’s a great system when there’s plenty of water.”

When it came to irrigation, Dobson said that, before this dry season, he didn’t sweat the tiny details because he didn’t have to. He grew interested in the skills of farmers in Israel and other drought-prone areas. Now, he says, he has a new understanding.

“It’s a new way of looking into the future.”


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4 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Laury epstein says:

    Great summary of how the drought is affecting local farmers.

  2. Philip says:

    Thanks Heather my family owns that spot on barbieri pond and in the 30yrs we have been there this is the lowest water level I have ever seen

  3. Deidre Consolati says:

    As much news as can be disseminated is essential to the shared mission of helping our communities through this drought crisis. Our local food and water supply is imperiled. We need the facts
    Thank you!

  4. Maria Nation says:

    Thanks for this, Heather. One possible correction to your headline of “worst in a decade” – and -perhaps this is anecdotal – but I’ve lived and gardened and farmed here for 20 years now – and this is the worst I have seen in that time.

    When you turn on your faucet and nothing comes out you realize how precious water is – and how we take it for granted.

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