In this BDN file photo from 2018, an irrigation rig rests between rows of recently planted potatoes in Aroostook County. Credit: Anthony Brino / BDN

Marshall Daly of 3D Farm Products in Knox lives on top of a hill, where he’s had a great view of the passing thunderstorms that have never quite made it to his fields this summer.

As a result, Daly’s nearly 1,000 acres of hay, corn, oats and rye are dry and stunted, suffering from the drought that has settled in over most of the southern half of Maine. It’s one of several recent dry seasons. But like many farmers here, he’s just not set up for irrigation.

“We don’t have the ponds and the infrastructure to do all that land,” he said Wednesday. “We’re just hoping for rain. It was supposed to thunderstorm the other day, and we didn’t have a drop. What are you going to do? You can’t do anything about any of it.”

The ongoing drought is considered “moderate” in Waldo County and other parts of the state, according to the most recent map from the U.S. Drought Monitor. It has caused lawns to turn brown and brittle and gardens to look dry and dusty. Lots of Mainers are feeling the pinch, including in Stonington, where the lack of rain and the influx of summer visitors have once again forced the coastal town to buy tens of thousands of gallons of drinking water.

But for farmers, whose livelihood depends on being able to grow and sell crops, the drought anxiety is palpable. Unlike in some parts of the country, such as the West, Maine historically has not relied on mechanical irrigation to keep crops watered. The recent stretch of challenging summer conditions is causing some farmers to rethink that.

Christa Bahner of Bahner Farm in Belmont is among them. She and her husband, Mike Bahner, grow vegetables, and have noticed a trend over the years that they don’t like.

“Basically it’s been really dry, at least for us, with the exception of last year. It’s been dry for five or six years,” she said. “The first five or six years we were farming, you didn’t have to irrigate that much. It’s been a big weather pattern shift.”

Drought has a lot of facets, according to Sarah Jamison, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Gray. What Maine is currently experiencing is more of a surface drought, where surface water such as rivers and ponds are stressed, she said. But another factor playing into the current conditions is the fact that snowfall has been lower than normal for much of the state for the past few years.

Taken together, it means that even when a thunderstorm rolls in and dumps inches of water on the ground over a short period of time, it likely will not solve the underlying problem. Such “wetting rain” events, she said, can help replenish the vegetation, which helps, but they don’t penetrate much below the root level of plants or recharge the groundwater.

“When we’re not getting that expected snowfall, that sets us back,” she said. “Any rain is welcome. It certainly helps slow down the deterioration and the impacts. But without a plentiful, widespread rainfall event that can really spread into the ground, we’re going to continue to contend with drought.”  

Farmers who are dealing with the effects of drought right now have limited options when it comes to irrigation if they don’t have special equipment or access to new sources of water such as a farm pond or another well. The Bahners, who are in that position, have resorted to using their flatbed truck to haul water in 1,200 gallon tanks for some of their fields.

“It’s not a great solution. It’s what you do if you have no other choice,” Christa Bahner said. “It can really help to get things to germinate, but you still need water for them to perform well.”

Without enough water, just about every farmer is likely to experience big reductions in yield, she said, and crops like carrots and potatoes take much longer to grow. Stressed-out plants also are more susceptible to pest damage.

Sun-scorched beets are shown in this BDN file photo from 2016, a drought year for much of Maine. Credit: Kathleen Pierce / BDN

So the Bahners have been spending a lot of their time irrigating in recent weeks. They hope to be able to drill another well for the farm this year — and are crossing their fingers that it will be a good one, with ample water and a high flow rate.

“You can end up with a fantastic well, but a lot of times, you have no idea what you’ll get,” she said.

In the meantime, they — and Daly — are just hoping for more rain.

“If it flipped like a light switch right now and started raining, it would be OK,” Daly said. “But if it stays dry like this, it literally would kill some of [the crops], because there’s no water.”

Not every farm has been affected by drought. Mark Rollins of Heald Farm in Troy said that the recent rain storms have dumped inches on his fields — more than four inches in the past two weeks.

“I go to the market down in Belfast on Saturday, and I notice everybody’s lawn is all dried up and looks terrible. Everything’s a lot greener when you get to Knox Ridge,” he said. “The corn’s going to be ready next week, and it looks good.”

But that’s not the case for Daly, who’s expecting his yields to be just half of what they were last year, when there was plenty of rain. Almost too much, in fact, he said.

“Two years ago it was extremely dry. Last year, it was a monsoon mud pit,” he said. “Average would be wonderful.”