Statewide drought doesn’t wilt Martha’s Vineyard farmers

While many farmers on the mainland are struggling, Island farmers are so far holding their own.

Rusty Gordon holds up on of the main waterlines he uses to irrigate Ghost Island Farm. — Sam Moore

Last week, the Massachusetts Drought Management Task Force recommended that Cape Cod and the Islands be moved from the “normal” category to a “drought advisory.” The declaration meant 91.78 percent of the state is now under some kind of drought designation.

At the State House last week, Alan Dunham of the National Weather Service Hydrologic Program said drought conditions in the Commonwealth are “pretty much unprecedented.”

Trevor Battle, an environmental health inspector for the Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR), said, “Preliminary findings have indicated that a substantial number of [Massachusetts] farmers have seen crop losses of 30 percent or greater,” according to a state house press release.

Over the past week, Island farmers contacted by The Times appeared to be weathering the lack of rain. Some said that operating costs have risen to a small degree, but by and large, Vineyard farmers anticipate a dry summer here every year, and they have long made irrigation a top priority.

“You have to have irrigation here,” Simon Athearn, from Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown, said. “It means that a lot of labor and diesel is dedicated to pumping water every day. So far we’ve been able to keep up, so the plants stay happy but it’s a lot of effort. It’s certainly increased our cost of doing business. But we’re veteran enough vegetable farmers that we don’t even expect rain. We assume we’ll have to make it ourselves.”

Morning Glory Farm is cultivating 60 acres of vegetables this summer. Mr. Athearn said that crop diversity is also a hedge against whatever Mother Nature sends the Island’s way. “It’s been an epic year for onions,” he said. “Our corn’s been really good this year. It was a bad spring for pollination and it was very cold, so we don’t have any peaches. And we lost a big cucumber planting to a wind storm. But that’s farming.”

Mr. Athearn said his tomato crop is maturing late this year, which he attributes to the cold spring. “That’s big for us. We’re now finally in heavy tomatoes but it’s the third week of August, which is not good.”

Every farmer interviewed by The Times said that his or her tomato crop is late this year.

“I’m not sure if it’s a drought or something else with the weather, but our tomatoes aren’t ripening as soon,” said Jamie Norton, co-owner of Norton Farm in Tisbury. “Usually by this time our shelves are overflowing with tomatoes. It won’t be long though. Pretty soon we’re going to have tomatoes growing out of our ears.”

Tardy tomatoes aside, Mr. Norton said that his production is only slightly off, due to a reduction in gilo — a Brazilian eggplant. “It’s an odd year,” he said. “You look around and you don’t see blue hydrangeas. We didn’t have one of them blossom this year. Something’s going on.”

Jefferson Munroe, livestock farmer at The Good Farm in Tisbury, said the current heatwave, not the drought, is a concern. “The heat stresses the chickens out,” he said. “They grow slower because they don’t eat as much. But our grass is still pretty green. We’ve been doing a lot in the past few years to increase the amount of carbon in the soil, so when we get a rainstorm the ground is able to soak it up.”

Lily Walter, co-owner of Slip Away Farms, said increasing drip irrigation has helped keep crops growing on Chappy soil. “We’ve actually been okay,” she said. “We have pretty much our entire field on drip irrigation. It’s way more efficient, we don’t lose as much to evaporation. In the past, the sandy soil has been a problem but drip irrigation works really well.”

Alan Healy, owner of Mermaid Farm in Chilmark, said this summer seems like a typical Island summer. “July wasn’t a bad month for rain, we have four and a half inches on our farm,” he said. “It’s always dry here in the summer. I’d say it’s better this year than a lot of years.”

A spokesman at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed that Mr. Healy is correct. The year-to-date precipitation on Martha’s Vineyard is almost exactly seven inches more this year than last year. As of August 11, this year’s total is 28.71 inches. Last year, the total on August 11 was 21.70 inches.

Many Island farmers, especially those up-Island, also benefit from a “heavy soil,” which is ‘heavy’ because it captures and retains a high degree of moisture. “In Chilmark, we are blessed with good soil that retains water,” Rebecca Miller, co-owner of North Tabor Farm said. In addition to drip irrigation, she said a new “low spray” irrigation system has served her crops, especially the greens, well this summer, and that lack of rain hasn’t been an issue.

“It’s not dry here like it is off-Island,” she said. “I have a friend who has a huge farm in Amherst and both her ponds have dried up, and they’re on city water and it’s costing a lot of money. She’s been there over 15 years and it’s never happened before.”

Ms. Miller said she lost her cucumber crop due to high humidity that caused “fungal issues,” but she’s upbeat about this year’s productivity. “I lost my cucumbers but I had the best flower year I had in many years. You just never know. That’s what keeps farming fresh for us.”

Josh Scott, co-owner of Beetlebung Farm, a livestock farm, said that he changed his business plan three years ago to adapt to the typically arid Vineyard summers.“We already downsized the amount of animals we had,” he said. “We’ve had summer droughts for the last five years. We had our last cow last summer. They need so much grass, we decided to go with sheep [and pigs]. Right now we’re okay, but if it continues to be dry we might be in trouble. Nobody has hay on the Island. The first cut [in late spring] was amazing. But there hasn’t been another one since.”

Rusty Gordon, owner of Ghost Island Farm in West Tisbury, said he has grown his eight-acre farm slowly over the past five years, making sure he’s able to irrigate along the way. He’s spent thousands of dollars installing drip lines as he’s expanded from his original two acres. “In the old days, you’d plant potatoes and corn and hope for rain; you just can’t do that anymore,” he said.

“As far as I’m concerned every summer is going to be a problem with water,” he said. “I’m done saying the word ‘drought.’ We’re fortunate that we can irrigate here.  You’re always going to have your weather problems if you’re a farmer, that shouldn’t faze you.”

Mr. Gordon said the only snag he’s had this year is the late ripening of his tomatoes — he has 7,000 plants made up of 100 varieties. “But I’ve got eight greenhouses up and we’ve been picking those since the first of July, so that should get us through.”