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Ag drought? Depends who you ask

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SPENCERTOWN—The Joe Pye Weed is more brown than purple, the fields are yellow, the tree leaves are drooping, the crops are stunted and the deer and birds are foraging day and night in search of moisture in the crops. These are among the effects of the drought conditions the county has been seeing all summer.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has declared Columbia County, like much of the state, in a Drought Watch, the first of four levels beyond normal (Watch, Warning, Emergency and Disaster). In non-technical terms the National Weather Service defines a drought as “a period of unusually persistent dry weather that persists long enough to cause serious problems such as crop damage and/or water shortages.” An “agricultural drought” is “a situation where the amount of moisture in the soil no longer meets the needs of a particular crop.”

We are having an agricultural drought. It has been several months since most of the county has experienced a soaking rain on June 9. Rainfall has been scant ever since. An Austerlitz rain tracker measured 3.7 inches in June, 4.7 inches in July and 3.6 in August to date. A recent 1.5-inch storm in the Chatham area skipped the lower part of the county, which saw just drops.

How have local farmers and growers been affected? In short, it depends.

Jim Davenport of Tollgate Farm in Ancramdale has been raising cattle since 1993 and has never seen conditions as dry as this year. Fortunately for the Davenports, the late winter and spring were wet and the water table still remains higher than recent conditions would support, but the top six inches of soil are parched. The first cutting of hay in May was good, but the second cutting in June was “disappointing” and the third cutting in mid-August was just 30% of normal. Deer and other animals have increased their browsing in search of moisture, which is why they can be seen day and night.

Lynndee Kemmett of Boschee Farm adds that livestock farms are seeing their pastures dry up and are having to supplement with hay. She turns horses out at night and whereas normally they have ample grass to browse, she is now throwing hay into the fields. Equestrian riding rinks are dusty and need to be watered down, and she has been hearing stories of well issues.

At Little Forest Farm in Ancram, growers Julie McGanney and Frank Grisanzio raise Shitake mushrooms, as well as vegetables and blueberries. The mushroom process is water-dependent. Last year, their growing logs were impregnated with a mushroom spawn. This year the logs are soaked once a week in a 150-gallon water tank (using about 60 gallons of water from their well) and a week or so later the logs begin to fruit. On the days when they soak the logs, the growers try not to use water elsewhere, and they are limited by food safety concerns in reusing water from the soaking tank.

At the Hudson Chatham Winery, owner Steven Rosario says the vines are stressed and yellowing prematurely, the grapes are some 25% smaller than normal, and because the birds are swarming to eat the grapes for their moisture, all the vines have been netted. But, as challenging as the lack of rain this year has been, last year’s abundance created its own problems as disease, mold and mildew thrive in wet conditions.


Deer and other animals have increased their browsing in search of moisture, which is why they can be seen day and night.


And not everyone is experiencing hardship. At the Berry Farm, all the fruit is on drip-irrigation, the greenhouse crops are watered hydroponically and the fields are fenced against animals. The farm is blessed with a huge aquifer and its well has an extraordinary 300 gallon/minute flow. Owner Joe Gilbert says the dry conditions may be easier to weather than heavy rains. Last year the blueberries were so water-logged they literally exploded.

Likewise, at Staron Farm most crops are watered through irrigation fed by pump trucks filled from their three ponds. But field (cow) corn, which is not watered, is suffering and the costs of gasoline for the trucks, which run throughout the pumping, especially when added to increased fertilizer and labor costs, is hurting finances. Squirrels and deer are doing twice the usual damage. Fall crops, like pumpkins may suffer most. As Donna Staron philosophically noted, this year the success of local farms rests more than ever on Mother Nature.

The Goldilocks principle seems to apply to farming as well as porridge: the best conditions are not too hot, not too cold, not too wet and not too dry.

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