BOWDOINHAM, Maine — On the 12-acre Stonecipher Farm, rows of sun-scorched beets are experiencing a second growth wave.

“A week ago this looked like someone sprayed them with herbicide,” said farmer Ian Jerolmack, plucking off a dying leaf. “I have never seen beets that bad.”

Recent rainfall provided some relief for southern and central Maine farmers suffering in this year’s severe drought, but for many, it’s too little, too late.

Jerolmack is grateful his plants are still alive as the crucial summer days fly from the calendar, but the organic farmer has lost crops, had to lay off employees and has learned to farm differently.

“We are getting used to the idea that this is what it’s like to farm in a desert,” said Jerolmack, who is in his eighth year running a diversified farm two miles from Merrymeeting Bay. “You can’t assume seeds are going to germinate. This summer it may never happen again. The old timers are telling me it has not been this bad since 1947.”

That’s the year of the Great Fires, when more than 200,000 acres of wooded land burned statewide.

Though Jerolmack, who delivers vegetables to 40 restaurants and markets in Portland, is irrigating, he’s lost a handful of key crops. Brussel sprouts are toast, fennel fried, his half-grown carrots look iffy, and onions are small and spotty. Don’t even ask about broccoli and cauliflower.

“We should be bringing in 300 pounds of broccoli and cauliflower a week. We have none,” said the frustrated farmer. “We have no cabbage. We should have more than we want of cabbage.”

Since May, a succession of hot, dry, rainless days have dominated. Moving irrigation around the farm in 90 degree heat is slow and tiresome. The earth in some regions turned dry as powder. Farmers such as Jerolmack are making tough decisions on what to water and what to let go. He calls it “a hope scale.”

Because he can’t water everything, he is diligently dousing fall carrots.

“Those carrots now represent more hope than the broccoli,” he said.

For many farmers in Sagadahoc, Androscoggin, Cumberland and York counties, it’s been a rough summer. Though stress has not registered across the board.

“The situation can vary from farm to farm depending upon the crop and their management practices,” said John Rebar, executive director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

According to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, effects are showing.

“Vegetable folks are just getting to the point where the drought is hurting their crops, especially if they’ve been able to do some irrigation. Their losses will be mainly in lost revenue due to decreased sales,” said Dave Colson, MOFGA’s director of agricultural services.

At Stonecipher, Jerolmack stopped planting head lettuce because it requires too much water, for too little value.

This year “you have to have a desert mindset about what’s going on out here,” he said.

If he was farming in Central Valley in California, this would be normal. But in Maine?

Nothing Jerolmack has learned has prepared him for the summer of 2016.

“There was this period of disbelief, then a period of acceptance and then a period of adaptation, where people went, ‘Wow, I need to change the way I think this is going to go for the rest of the year,” he said.

“It’s been a long summer,” he added with a sigh.

Meanwhile, restaurateurs such as David Turin of David’s in Portland, who buys Stonecipher’s coveted produce, are standing by farms feeling the heat.

“If people don’t have it, they don’t have it,” said Turin, who boards Jerolmack’s truck when it comes into the city and selects what’s fresh.

This summer, the chef has noticed “cauliflower is small and broccoli has been wimpy.”

Local lettuce has not been robust either. But tomatoes, which are thriving in the heat, are in abundance on many farms. Reacting to what’s available, chefs quickly change gears.

“It feels to me that one farmer’s loss is another farmer’s gain,” said Turin, who is happy with the heirloom tomatoes he has been able to procure.

To cope, Jerolmack has increased prices slightly.

“I’ve never wanted to appear that I’m ripping people off or getting more for what it’s worth. But, if there is ever a time to raise prices, it’s now. I have less than half of the produce that I ought to have this year, if the demand is the same, do the math.”

And as a hot, sunny day beats down on his mid-sized farm, Jerolmack is looking to put the past behind him. But he can’t yet.

“The year would have to be normal from here on out to say we that we’ve turned a corner. I no longer feel like normal is an assumption we can make about the climate,” he said. “This year I just feel like everything is up in the air. I don’t feel confident to make predictions about anything.”

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.