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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”