Drought has mixed effects on farmers across region

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LOWELL – While significant drought conditions have blanketed the state for months, only some farmers across Massachusetts are truly struggling because of it, while a number of others report that they are continuing to find success.

“Interestingly, in spite of the drought, farmers are having a very good year by and large,” said Commissioner John Lebeaux of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

Environmental officials first announced drought conditions in several regions of the state in late June, and in the time since those conditions have continued to worsen. As of Sept. 22, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that virtually all of Massachusetts remains in a dry state, with over 10% experiencing “extreme drought.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have even gone so far as to say that this summer was one of the hottest and driest on record in parts of the Northeast.

“Folks are getting their crops out, just with an enormous amount of additional labor and cost to the farmer,” Lebeaux said.

According to Lebeaux, of all the types of agriculture the state fosters, the dry weather has been particularly troublesome for dairy farmers.

Warren Shaw, who runs Shaw Farm Dairy in Dracut, told The Sun that he’s been forced to use a “tremendous amount of water” to irrigate his pasture over the past several months and that because of it he’s shouldering a “significant economic impact.”

“I’ve been in every field that we crop in the last week to see what we can expect, in what amounts to the last crop period of the year, and there’s not going to be any,” Shaw said. “I’m familiar with most of the farmers in the state and they’re all having drought problems.”

Among those suffering from such problems is Dave Dumaresq, who grows an assortment of fruits and vegetables on his farms in Dracut and Tewksbury.

While Dumaresq hasn’t suffered from the same crop scarcity as Shaw, he said he’s been forced to pump over 5 million gallons of water this summer to maintain production, which has driven up his labor costs and taken a toll on his irrigation equipment.

“At least three people on our staff have been dedicated to irrigation pretty much every day since June,” Dumaresq said. “This drought has probably cost us well over $50,000.”

However, the drought has not meant doom and gloom for all local farmers. In some ways, it has even been beneficial.

“The upside to dry weather is that it helps our retail business,” said Jim Lattanzi, who owns and operates Hollis Hills Farm in Fitchburg with his wife Allison, which features an apple orchard and an on-site restaurant.

“It’s harder to grow the crops and to make sure you’ve got a good crop to sell, but the other side of it is that we have good selling weather,” Lattanzi said.

In an interview with The Sun, Lattanzi said that he too has been forced to pump a significant amount of water, but since he has such a wide range of crops and had previously installed drip irrigation, the impact of the drought has been far more benign.

“Diversification in today’s market seems to be everything for us. Being a multi-faceted operation certainly helps,” he said.

Still, even for farmers who have suffered greatly from the dry weather, they have all recently found a boost to their businesses from a very unexpected source: the coronavirus.

According to Lebeaux, the pandemic has actually been a financial positive for the farming business, as it has prompted more and more consumers to shop for groceries.

“Demand is up, people aren’t going to restaurants, they’re cooking at home. They’re also looking for healthier, more local products. So if we’re able to grow it, we have a consumer for it,” Dumaresq said.

Ultimately, for many farmers in the state, that rise in consumption has supplemented the costs brought on by the drought.

“We actually have done OK during the pandemic, when a lot of businesses are really struggling,” Shaw said. “So I wouldn’t complain about what the pandemic has done to us.”

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