On Monday, March 27, the George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions welcomed Rachel Schattman, assistant professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine, to discuss droughts in Maine. The talk, entitled “Dealing with Drought: Aligning farmer needs and advisor confidence, skills, and expertise” explored how the increasing occurrence of droughts in Maine will impact the agricultural industry, as well as ways for the state to support the needs of local farmers as they attempt to address water-related issues and adapt to the challenges they pose.
With the global issue of climate change comes warmer temperatures and drought that negatively impacts Maine farmers, along with random bouts of intense rainfall that can also prove damaging to crops.
In 2020, Maine experienced a significant drought period. In 2023, the United States has collectively experienced the 11th driest February on record during the last 129 years. However, it has also experienced the 38th wettest year to date during that same time period, with a 0.6426 increase in average inches of rainfall.
The 2020 Maine Agriculture and Drought Survey showed a general increase in yield loss of all types of crops grown in the state compared to the previous five years. This survey collected responses from 174 farmers, with a median farm size of 55 acres and the median irrigation area on these farms calculated to one acre.
Over 25% of survey respondents reported that they ran out of water for farm use, and over 75% of this same group reported a decrease in the overall quality of their crops due to drought, as well as other difficulties.
One key takeaway Schattman addressed after expanding on the statistics collected from the survey was that between 16 to 37% of respondents desire more information on how to manage their water supply, as well as advice on how to improve their soil practices. Regarding water management, potato and livestock producers expressed the most concern about improving their current systems. Potato producers were also more likely to express the need for funding to develop and manage their water practices.
Potatoes have become Maine’s premiere food crop since the first planters settled in the state in the early 1800s, with the largest concentration of potato farms located in the northernmost part of the state, Aroostook County. Maine farmers generate about $540 million in sales across the state’s 56,000 acres of farmland, which provides employment to over 6,000 workers. Potato farms lead agricultural sales, with a harvest valued at more than $200 million in 2019 alone according to Maine Public.
A key problem Maine potato farmers face is that they often use a dry farming practice without supplemental irrigation due to the high costs of maintaining irrigation equipment, so they are likely to face devastation in instances of extended drought. The 2020 drought decimated roughly 30% of Maine’s total potato production that year.
According to a piece by Climate Central in 2022 regarding the ongoing challenges Maine potato farmers are facing, Ryan Guerrette, president of Guerrette Farms Corp., stated that his farm’s irrigation process required $5 per gallon of fuel on top of the other costs necessary to run irrigation operations. Guerrette also added that this $5 per gallon cost of fuel could be multiplied by 3,000 gallons of fuel per day to get an accurate understanding of the extensive costs required to run irrigation systems on Maine farms effectively. Based on these numbers, it is no wonder that many Maine potato farmers desire financial assistance to properly run their irrigation systems to limit the devastating impact drought can have on their crop yields.
Farmers have taken significant steps to fight off the impact that heat and drought continue to impose on their production levels, such as rotating their crops and attempting to develop more resilient potatoes. These measures are positively impactful, but they cannot fully make up for the limitations caused by a lack of supplemental irrigation.
As the state continues to face the growing challenges imposed by climate change, Maine potato farmers and those working with other types of food crops require more support and guidance to prevent significant economic loss and a further decrease in both production levels and the quality of crops ending up on store shelves within the state and beyond.
For more information about the Mitchell Center’s spring talks, visit https://umaine.edu/mitchellcenter/seminars/spring-2023-sustainability-talks/.