Wayne Ouimette, field hand at Rulfs Orchard, said the effects of the hot, dry summer can be seen on many of the farm’s crops.
NORTH COUNTRY — Recent rains have brought relief to local farmers, who are persevering despite the dry summer.
In recent weeks, the national media have reported that the drought affecting more than 60 percent of the nation has severely damaged crops.
The dry conditions, which are the worst the country has seen in half a century, are expected to cause food prices to skyrocket next year.
But in the North Country, things aren’t looking too bad.
Data collected by the Burlington National Weather Service show that rainfall in the Champlain Valley has only been about 2 inches below average.
Similarly, Lake Champlain, whose average summertime level is 95.2 feet, is at about 94.5 feet, only half an inch below the norm and well above the all-time low of 92.61 feet.
Local farmers agree that this year’s growing season has been trying, but not so much that it will raise the price of local produce.
Fruits and vegetables have been impacted, but good crop management has kept the fatality rate low.
Darcy Pray, general partner of Pray’s Family Farm in Keeseville, has been farming for 28 years.
He said that maintenance of the farm’s 100 acres has relied on using irrigation to make up for the depleted water table.
“There are three different irrigation systems that I use, but it’s not like natural rain,” Pray said.
Pray has faced some difficulties this summer. Having to pump water 12-14 hours a day overburdened some of his equipment, which resulted in an irrigation motor and pump breaking down.
The frequent hot days have also forced the farm’s pumpkins to mature extremely fast, and now Pray must decide whether to pick them now or see if the stems can hold out until the Halloween pumpkin-picking season.
Despite the hurdles, Pray said it would take a disaster, like a major flood, to cause prices to go up next year.
“We have vegetables shipped to us, so there might be a slight increase (in prices) in winter and early spring,” Pray said. “But there won’t be an increase with local stuff.”
Linda Facteau, produce manager at Rulfs Orchard in Peru, also said she doesn’t foresee local produce prices going up.
She has seen the effects of the dry weather, though, and so have her customers.
“We’ve had people complain that the strawberries aren’t as big, and some of the corn is so sunburned people are saying it looks old,” Facteau said.
Apples and pumpkins are also smaller than normal.
“As a farmer, you could just cry seeing the fields as dry as they are,” Facteau said.
Irrigating the 250-acre farm has depleted one of two manmade reservoir ponds on the property. The job of watering the apple orchards has gone to workers who would normally be harvesting and pruning the trees.
Wayne Ouimette, a field hand who is in his 25th season at Rulfs Orchard, has been on the front line of reinvigorating the crops on the property.
“We’ve just been rotating our irrigation from field to field as things begin to wilt,” Ouimette said. “If we didn’t have irrigation, we would have lost 75 percent of our crops.”
Plants aren’t the only thing that have required careful managing this summer.
Owner of Conroys Organics Simon Conroy raises grass-fed beef on his farm, and relies heavily on high-quality grasses to sustain his herd of about 75 cows.
“It’s not a dire situation,” Conroy said.
“The Northeast is such a green place, which is why we’re raising beef in the North Country.”
Conroy has 50 acres of pasture and 50 acres of hay land that he utilizes to raise his cattle.
The pasture is broken up into small plots, which the cows are cycled through all summer, and the hay land is used to grow grass for the animals to eat throughout the winter.
Conroy said the pasture land didn’t recuperate like it normally does after the midsummer dry spell, so he was forced to dip into his supply of winter hay.
But on a small-scale farm, adjustments can made.
Conroy could buy feed to get him through until next spring, be instead he will probably sell a few animals either for breeding stock or for beef.
Either way, the decision will keep the price of his beef from rising next year.
“Our beef does cost the consumer a little more because it isn’t subsidized,” Conroy said.
Conroy explained that corn is heavily subsidized by tax dollars, and since factory farms tend to feed corn to their animals, most beef found in grocery stores is already partially paid for by taxes.
There is a trade-off, though.
Animals raised on smaller farms have room to roam and graze, are less likely to be injected with growth hormones and antibiotics, and enjoy diets consistent with their natural habits.
“When you buy local, it’s a more consistent product,” Conroy said. “When there’s an E. coli outbreak it doesn’t affect us, and since we are feeding our animals high-quality grass, people really love the flavor and all the vitamins and minerals behind it.”
Conroy added that the nation’s drought, and the subsequent increase in food prices it might cause, are good reasons for people to begin shopping closer to home.
“We live in a culture where family farms only appear in kid’s story books,” Conroy said. “When people buy from little farms it creates a ripple effect that goes into making healthy communities.”
To learn more about the region’s farms, or to find a farm near you, visit adirondackharvest.com.