Persevering during a Drought

By Rob Page, Lincoln Field Manager

February 2023

2022 was an extremely challenging growing season. Climate realities continue to threaten farms and farm workers through hotter and longer droughts, increasingly erratic and sometimes extreme bouts of rainfall, and more extreme temperature swings causing erratic freeze/thaw cycles in spring and fall. Throughout Massachusetts, drought conditions stretched for months. By mid-August, officials classified 4 out of 5 regions as Level 3 (Critical Drought) and the USDA recognized nine counties as natural disaster areas due to drought conditions.

For most small-scale vegetable farmers in our region, irrigation is meant to supplement the natural rainfall that augments a crop’s lifespan. Without enough water at the necessary stage of growth, vegetable crops become stressed: they may start to abort their fruits or flowers, only retaining elements essential to their survival; their immune systems become weakened and are more susceptible to disease or pests; stunted growth provides opportunities for weeds to outcompete crops. If water remains scarce, they will die.

We hadn’t planned back in January of 2022 for a months-long severe drought. Certain crops perished altogether while others grew irregular fruits and flowers, rendering them semi- to unmarketable. Crucially, our health and our spirits were getting crushed. Several afternoons of youth farm work were canceled due to the heat index. For the farm crew, it was not always as simple, because halting work meant pausing some form of irrigation triage.

It should be noted that our farmers persevered throughout this difficult time. We kept watering, planting, weeding, and harvesting despite the weather, and for the most part, our stakeholders’ and distribution partners’ needs were met. However, it became clear over the course of the drought that this is not a sustainable way to grow vegetables, at least at The Food Project. Balancing the needs of youth programming and our participation with the rest of the organization added layers of challenging complexity. By the end of the season, members of the farm crew were struggling with burnout from mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion, and in some cases, chronic health issues or interpersonal conflicts.

Fortunately, each winter provides us with an opportunity to rest, regroup, and plan for the following season. We’re finding some restorative energy through considering new pathways to existing and thriving on the farm. A more holistic approach to land stewardship is top of mind.

While we will not be able to provide weekly CSA shares in the way that many of you have come to expect, we hope to keep you engaged with our farms through our Spring Seedling Sale and Fall Harvest Share. Please expect to hear more from us soon about these opportunities.