Drought wreaks havoc on local farms and orchards | The Harvard Press | News | Press articles

From dry stream beds to corn cobs so small only a toddler would find them satisfying, the signs of this summer’s drought are everywhere. Rainfall levels have been below normal since May, affecting area farms and orchards as well as the health of Bare Hill Pond. On July 21, the state declared a critical drought for all of Worcester County, urging county residents to stop all non-essential water use.

Farms and orchards have been hardest hit. Carlson Orchards owner Frank Carlson told the press that the orchard has three wells and two ponds which are used for drip irrigation, but must limit water use because the wells are stressed and the ponds become low. Water goes to peach trees and some of the apple trees that bear more expensive varieties such as Honeycrisp. But Carlson said apples like McIntosh and Cortland will be smaller this year because those trees aren’t getting water. “We really need rain,” he said.

At Willard Farm, the story is much the same. Wendell Willard said crops that have the luxury of drip irrigation are doing well: tomatoes, sunflowers, cucumbers and some small pumpkins and squash. But other crops, like sweet corn and large pumpkins, are doing poorly. These fields are “pretty much a desert,” Willard said. He added that it doesn’t take a lot of water to keep the maize alive, but the showers that appear sporadically continue to head north or south on his farm. This summer’s drought is “the worst I have ever seen”, he said.

The Bowers Creek water intake for Bare Hill Pond is all muddy and lacks running water due to continued drought. (Photo by Joan Eliyesil)

Westward Orchards farmer Chris Green told the press that his apples and peaches were smaller than normal. This means less money for the orchard. Usually, he says, about a third of the apple crop is sold to wholesalers, but this year’s small apples will not be acceptable due to their size. He hopes the insurance will cover some of the losses. His maize is also suffering, not so much from drought as from bird damage. “When it’s really dry, the birds eat the tops of the corn,” he said.

Linda Hoffman, owner of Old Frog Pond Farm, also reported crop damage from wildlife seeking water. “Bird pressure on our fisheries has been terrible and deer are eating a lot more fruit than usual,” she said. While the pond provides irrigation for the vegetables, the orchard irrigation system across Eldridge Road relies on the surrounding wetlands, which Hoffman says are drying up. She said she felt the fruits and vegetables were smaller on her farm this year.

At Doe Orchards, owner Pam Lawson told the press her staff were working hard to minimize the effects of the drought. The blueberries are drip irrigated, five-gallon buckets of water help the peach trees stay hydrated as the crop is nearly ready to be picked, and workers also water the Christmas trees. Lawson also makes sure his bees get water and their hive lids are wedged in for ventilation. But the apple trees are “clearly stressed”, she said, and the high temperatures are now threatening to scorch the apples as well, a situation Frank Carlson also mentioned.

Department of Public Works director Tim Kilhart told reporters that the single well that currently supplies all the water to the city center has no problem keeping up with demand. He said he was only producing about 14,000 gallons a day, about 4,000 gallons less than average, because the school is not open and residents are prohibited from watering outside. of the water district. The Harvard Water Commission ordered the ban last summer when one of the city’s two wells had to be shut down due to e-coli contamination. The well is still offline while the city awaits a DEP permit to install a full-time chlorination system, and the sprinkler ban will remain in effect until the well is brought back online. The Town Hall landscaping and new grounds in front of the Elementary School, both within the water district, are watered from a reservoir, not the water supply of the city.

But private well owners are not regulated by the Water Commission or by state regulations. This is the responsibility of local health boards; As of press time, Harvard’s BOH had made no statement regarding watering bans for homes or businesses with private wells. Kilhart told reporters his staff continued to irrigate Charlie Waite Field, Harvard Park and one of the Ryan Land baseball diamonds with water from private wells at those locations.

The water level at Bare Hill Pond is already below normal late summer levels, according to Bruce Leicher, chairman of the Bare Hill Pond Watershed Management Committee. Leicher said the lack of rain not only contributed directly to the lower water level, but indirectly due to reduced water inflow from underground springs and streams. Bowers Brook, which feeds the pond from the south, was mostly mud with a few small puddles during a recent visit by this reporter.

The main problem that drought causes to the pond, however, is an increase in temperature. Leicher said the reduction in water from cool underground springs increases the temperature of the pond, which is now in the mid-80s. He said the water is warmer not only at the surface but at a depth of about 8 feet. Hot water loses some of its ability to hold oxygen, he added, and this stresses fish, especially smaller ones. It also provides an environment conducive to algae blooms like the one that closed the beach last summer for nearly two months. The Health Board monitors algae levels every two weeks, and so far they are low, but last year’s bloom began in late August (see article, page 5). “What we need is rain to reverse course,” Leicher said.

Ellen Leicher, chair of the Climate Initiative Committee, told the press that drought was one of the concerns raised by municipalities participating in the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Project a few years ago, and now those concerns are taking shape. The CIC is working on a climate action plan which will include the protection of the city’s water resources. “Like all impacts of climate change, it will require mitigation – residents are doing all they can to reduce their carbon footprint, and it will take adaptation – getting used to using less water, having hotter summers, see changes in biodiversity,” Leicher said. The plan will be released for resident comment in September.

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