Vermont farmer Brian Kemp is used to seeing the pastures at Mountain Meadows Farm grow more slowly in the hot late summer, but this year the grass is standing still.
It’s “very nerve-racking” when you’re grazing 600 to 700 cattle, said Kemp, who runs an organic beef farm in Sudbury. He describes the weather lately as inconsistent and impactful, which he attributes to a changing climate.
“I don’t think there’s anything normal anymore,” Kemp said.
The effects of climate change have been felt throughout the Northeastern United States with rising sea levels, heavy rainfall and storm surges causing flooding and coastal erosion. But this summer has brought another extreme: a severe drought that is turning lawns brittle and leaving farmers begging for steady rain. The heavy, brief rainfall caused by occasional thunderstorms tends to run off, not soak into the ground.
Water supplies are low or dry, and many communities are restricting non-essential outdoor water use. The fire brigade is fighting several brush fires and the crops are growing poorly.
Providence, Rhode Island had less than half an inch of precipitation in its third-driest July on record, and Boston had six-tenths of an inch in its fourth-driest July on record, according to the National Weather Service office in Norton, Massachusetts. Rhode Island’s governor issued a statewide drought advisory on Tuesday with recommendations to reduce water use. The northern end of Hoppin Hill Reservoir in Massachusetts is dry, forcing local water restrictions.
Officials in Maine said drought conditions really began there in 2020, with sporadic improvements in areas since. In Auburn, Maine, local firefighters helped a dairy farmer fill a water tank for his cows when his well got too low in late July and temperatures reached 90. About 50 dry wells have been reported to the state since 2021, according to the state’s dry. well examination.
The continued trend toward drier summers in the Northeast can certainly be attributed to the impact of climate change, since warmer temperatures lead to greater evaporation and drying of soils, climate scientist Michael Mann said. But, he said, the dry weather can be punctuated by extreme precipitation events since a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture — when conditions favor precipitation, there’s more of it in short bursts.
Mann said there is evidence shown by his research at Penn State University that climate change is leading to a “fixed jet stream” pattern. That means huge gyrations of the jet stream, or air flow, get stuck and locked into extreme weather events that can be alternately associated with extreme heat and drought in one place and extreme precipitation in another, a pattern that has played out this summer with the heat and drought in the Northeast and extreme flooding in parts of the Midwest, Mann added.
Most of New England is experiencing drought. The US Drought Monitor issued a new map Thursday showing areas of eastern Massachusetts off Cape Cod and much of southern and eastern Rhode Island now in extreme, rather than severe, drought.
New England has experienced severe summer droughts before, but experts say it is unusual to have droughts in fairly quick succession since 2016. Massachusetts experienced droughts in 2016, 2017, 2020, 2021 and 2022, which are most likely due to climate change, said Vandana Rao, director of water policy in Massachusetts.
“We are hoping this may be a peak period of the drought and we will return to many more years of normal rainfall,” she said. “But it could just be the beginning of a longer trend.”
Rao and other New England water experts expect the current drought to last for months.
“I think we’re probably going to be in this for a while, and it’s going to take a lot,” said Ted Diers, assistant director of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ water division. “What we’re really hoping for is a wet fall followed by a very snowy winter to really recharge the aquifers and groundwater.”
Rhode Island’s chief ranger, Ben Arnold, is concerned about the drought extending into the fall. That’s when people are doing more gardening, burning brush, using fireplaces and spending time in the woods, which increases the risk of wildfires. The fires this summer have been relatively small, but it takes a lot of time and effort to put them out because they burn down in the dry, said Arnold.
Hay farmer Milan Adams said one of the fields he farms in Exeter, Rhode Island, is powdery a foot down. In previous years, it rained in the spring. This year, he said, the drought began in March and April was so dry that he was nervous about his first cut of hay.
“The height of the hay was there, but there was no volume to it. From there, we got some rain in early May, which kind of sped it up, he said. – We haven’t seen anything since.
Farmers are fighting more than the drought — inflation is driving up the cost of everything from diesel and equipment parts to fertilizer and pesticides, Adams added.
“It’s all through the roof right now,” he said. “This is just throwing salt in a wound.”
Hay yields and quality are also down in Vermont, which means there won’t be as much for cows in the winter, Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said. The state has approximately 600 dairy farms, a $2 billion per year industry. Like Adams, Tebbetts said inflation is driving up prices, which will hurt farmers who have to buy feed.
Kemp, the president of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, is grateful to have supplemental feed from last year, but he knows other farmers who don’t have land to put together a reserve and who aren’t well stocked. The coalition tries to help farmers develop and learn new practices. They added “climate-smart agriculture” to their mission statement this spring.
“Agriculture is challenging,” Kemp said, “and it’s getting even more challenging as climate change takes place.”