Drought conditions in the state continue to worsen with federal agencies now saying a portion of land along the Connecticut-Rhode Island border is experiencing “extreme” drought conditions.
The U.S. Drought Monitor said last week that eastern portions of New London and Windham counties are now extremely dry, to the point where dairy farmers are struggling and Christmas tree farms are stressed.
“This year is the worst drought that I can ever remember,” said Ron Olsen of Olsen’s Christmas Tree Farm in Voluntown, which lies in the “extreme” drought zone. “I can definitely see the trees suffering. I’ve lost quite a few 1-to-2-foot trees. You just see them browning up in the field. So they’re not going to be surviving the winter.”
Olsen said he uses 8 acres to grow thousands of fir trees. He said his land can’t support an irrigation system and has patches of sandy soil, which can struggle to hold water. That’s led to a scenario where “in some areas the trees are doing pretty well, in other areas they’re suffering,” he said.
“Even some of the larger trees, the tops I can see are starting to get a little off-color, which is kind of a bad sign,” Olsen said. “But trees are pretty hardy and they’ll survive some pretty tough conditions, so hopefully this year will be a good sales year.”
A few miles south, Belinda Learned from Stonyledge Farm in North Stonington, which is also in the “extreme” drought zone, said business has actually been very good this year.
“Hot and dry is good for some things,” Learned said. “We were able to get a decent blueberry crop with no irrigation. We had a decent raspberry crop … when it’s hot and dry you don’t have berries turning to mush on the bush.”
Learned said the COVID-19 pandemic also increased demand for community supported agriculture (CSA) products, which she’s able to keep growing in part because of two wells that keep livestock watered and provide irrigation to her property.
“I’ve been pinpointing the irrigation on the crops still coming in so I know I have things to put in CSA shares,” Learned said.
But she’s tapping into that well cautiously.
“I set the alarm on my phone,” Learned said. “When two hours’ irrigation is up, that’s it. The alarm goes off and I hoof it down there and turn it off, just so I don’t run anything down.”
Learned said the dairy side of her business “will take a hit” as drought turns some pastures she uses to feed cattle into bone-dry fields. “At some point over the winter we will probably need to source hay from somewhere else.”
But she said the dry weather blunted the spread of crop-damaging diseases and allowed her and other farmers to get creative with growing techniques while awaiting the return of the rain.
“I do know that it will start raining,” Learned said. “Farmers are amazing people.”