Drought, heat bearing heavily on Franklin County farmers

  • Robert Sobieski, owner of River Valley Farm in Whately, in his water-starved blueberry fields. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Robert Sobieski of River Valley Farm in Whately shows blueberries that have not gotten enough water, which he calls “blaisins” because they look more like raisins than blueberries. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Robert Sobieski, owner of River Valley Farm, stands in Whately with healthy blueberries. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • A peach orchard at Quonquont Farm is seen from the air on Sunday. In “normal” years, everything would be green on the ground, according to Allison Bell, co-owner of the farm in Whately. Contributed Photo

  • Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm in Montague, moves an irrigation pump closer to the Connecticut River. Staff Photo/Carol Lollis

  • Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm in Montague, climbs up a steep incline after starting the irrigation pump at the Connecticut River. Staff Photo/Carol Lollis

  • Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm in Montague, wrangles an irrigation line. Staff Photo/Carol Lollis

Staff Writer
Published: 8/12/2022 4:06:49 PM
Modified: 8/12/2022 4:03:34 PM

Even blueberry bushes, a traditionally hardy plant, are succumbing to the effects of the heat and drought this year, local farmers say.

“Blueberries are pretty hardy but are more traditionally a wetlands plant, and a northern plant, so they don’t care as much for the heat, either,” said Leslie Harris, farm manager at Quonquont Farm in Whately.

At River Valley Farm, also in Whately, owner Robert Sobieski explained that anything shallow-rooted — like blueberries — is more apt to be affected by a lack of moisture.

“Blueberries have a dense, shallow-rooted root system that needs to have moisture maintained,” he said.

Particularly in bushes grown on lighter soil, or soil that doesn’t retain water as well, blueberries are smaller in size and are “all shriveled up” due to the lack of rainfall in recent months. He calls these “blaisins” because they look more like raisins than blueberries.

“It’s pretty much a loss,” Sobieski said, estimating he’s lost between 25% and 30% of his harvest this summer. “That’s been an issue from mid-July until now,” he said.

Since mid-July, the Connecticut River Valley Region, which encompasses Franklin County, has been in a “significant drought,” according to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The characterization follows several months of low precipitation coupled with high temperatures.

Harris said the drought, compounded by several weeks of extreme heat, has had an impact on everything at Quonquont Farm, from the peach orchards and blueberry bushes to the flowers and pastured poultry.

“It’s one thing to have a few dry weeks, and it’s another thing to go months without significant rain but also really high temperatures,” she said.

As orchards aren’t often irrigated, the fruit trees are watered using well water, Harris explained.

“Are we going to draw our wells dry by taking bucket after bucket to water fruit trees?” Harris asked.

She noted that in the vegetable area of the farm, which is irrigated, seeds are struggling to germinate in the heat.

“The heat ruins greens,” Harris said. “(Vegetable program curator Tim Baldwin) had to chop up his last crop of lettuce because it turned bitter. That was the heat more than the drought.”

The heat also adds a layer of concern for the farm’s poultry, she said. While the chicks are still “enjoying the heat,” Harris said the worry is that the hens will stop laying.

“We’re taking buckets of ice cubes and putting them in their water,” she said.

Diemand Farm

While the poultry at Diemand Farm in Wendell is doing well, co-owner Anne Diemand Bucci said the drought is affecting hay production. 

“We got our first cut, which was awesome, and now the second cut — there’s not a lot there,” she said, explaining the second cut usually happens around now. “When it doesn’t rain, and it’s hot, the grass doesn’t grow.”

Diemand Bucci said her brother will eventually cut the hay; “it just might not be a lot.”

It isn’t just the heat and lack of rain impacting the crop volume, though, according to farmers at both farms in Whately.

“The birds were ravenous this year,” Sobieski said. “They’re looking for moisture. They don’t have as many puddles to drink from, or clean water sources to drink from, so they’re eating a lot more blueberries.”

Allison Bell, co-owner of Quonquont Farm, has noticed a similar increase in predation on the peaches due to the lack of rain.

“If we don’t get rain … the bird predation is going to continue,” Bell explained. “It’s going to continue to a situation where we lose the majority of the crop.”

As it stands, Harris said, she’s throwing roughly three times as many peaches as usual into the compost because they’ve been damaged by birds.

In the last month, Whately had no rainfall with few exceptions, where less than 0.1 inches of rain were reported, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. On July 19, the town saw a high-water mark for the month of 0.75 inches.

“One thing I noticed is how localized some of these (drought) conditions can be,” Bell said. “Right here, in the center of Whately, we have missed out on the scattered storms that have been going north and south of us.”

In Montague, Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm, said for the last month, he’s watched the 40% chance of rain forcast for some days failed to materialize.

“We’ve been irrigating all summer, it seems like, especially this past week,” Voiland said. “It’s a dramatic effort to do this amount of irrigation.”

The cost of fuel to run these systems, he noted, adds “insult to injury.”

“That’s really going to make a big impact on our finances, so that’s a worry, too,” he said.

Voiland said while the tomatoes and peppers are doing OK, Red Fire Farm is starting to notice some “real losses” in perennial herbs. The summer kale has also suffered.

“We’re pretty much out of stock in terms of wholesale quantities, because the field they’re on is pretty much dried up,” Voiland said.

He also has a field of carrots he’s worried about.

“I can’t irrigate it,” he said. “If they don’t get water soon, they’re not going to grow that well.”

Voiland noted this summer’s weather is a “remarkable contrast” from last year, which had excessive rain, comparatively, between July and August.

Voiland said as the season carries on, the plan is to “hang in there.”

“We’re just going to try to … keep getting everything watered,” he said, “and hoping a rainstorm is coming soon.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429.


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