A relatively short but severe drought last August disrupted food production in Rhode Island, prompting the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare all of Rhode Island a natural disaster area. With climate change, such events could become more frequent in the future, experts told The Herald.
It was a “sharp, relatively short but extremely significant drought,” said Ken Ayars, chief of the division of agriculture and forest environment at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Farmers were the “most impacted out of all people who use water in the state,” Ayars said. He noted that while reservoir levels remained relatively normal, “farmers are dependent on shallower water systems” for crop production, making them particularly vulnerable to dry periods.
The quantity of food production and longevity of the farming season was also impacted by the drought, said Amber Jackson, director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Market Mobile Program. The project aims to "increase the availability and affordability of locally sourced foods, reduce food waste on local farms and share knowledge … (on) healthy lifestyles," according to its website.
Farmers struggled with “cultivating the amount of crops they normally” can grow because of the drought, Jackson said.
“The drought made for lower yields of many of our crops last summer,” wrote Hannah Wolbach, co-founder of Skinny Dip Farm in Little Compton, Rhode Island and Westport, Massachusetts, in an email to The Herald
“We were able to irrigate some of our crops, but setting up and running irrigation takes a lot of time and labor and energy,” Wolbach wrote, noting the large amount of gas used to power her farm’s main irrigation system.
The drought’s impact was inconsistent across farms in the state, wrote J. Eric Scherer, Rhode Island state executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency, in an email to The Herald. “Impacted farmers represent about 25% of the producers in the state, mostly in the southern and middle area of the state and the East Bay region,” he wrote.
Ayars added that beyond geographical factors, farmers in Rhode Island “grow various types of crops using various irrigation systems,” causing some farmers to tell him the drought “had almost no impact,” he said.
That was the case at Brandon Family Farm, wrote founder Albert Brandon in an email to The Herald. He explained the drought did not affect their production significantly: “We have all irrigated acres so the drought affected us minimally, vegetables actually tend to grow better with more sun and less rain.”
Once the drought disaster status was declared, state and federal relief programs offered support to affected farms, with DEM officials responsible for coordinating relief efforts and permit assistance. “We put a team together to respond to farmers during situations like this,” Ayars said. The team included support from the USDA and the University of Rhode Island.
Permit assistance allows farmers to tap into new water supplies at an expedited rate, Ayars explained, and state officials were told to “immediately give farmers permission to dig, add or maintain a pond.” The DEM also modified grant programs to aid farmers’ irrigation during the drought, including purchasing pumps and other equipment, he said.
According to Scherer, the 2022 drought led to the FSA activating its Emergency Conservation Program, which "helps farmers and ranchers repair damage to farmlands caused by natural disasters and put in place methods for water conservation during severe drought,” according to the USDA website.
Despite the assistance and grants provided, Ayars explained that “there isn’t an exact match between what a program will do and what the need is.”
Climate change and food production
The drought has also raised broader concerns over the impact of climate change on future farming in Rhode Island. “We expect global warming to continue and temperatures in the Northeast to increase over time,” said Kenneth Kunkel, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration affiliate and research professor at North Carolina State University. “With higher temperatures, soils dry out faster."
“The Northeast has moved into an era of much more frequent very warm summers,” he added. “The effects of dry periods will likely become more severe faster.”
When asked about the anticipated impacts of climate change, Wolbach, from Skinny Dip Farm, wrote that she expects not only extensive periods of drought, but also “big storm events,” to disrupt farming in the future.
“It is important for us to (grow) on fields with good drainage, or our crops will drown in heavy rain storms,” she wrote. “It definitely is pushing us to figure out how to make our farm as resilient as possible, working on improving irrigation (and) adding more greenhouses.”
According to Scherer, climate change is also one of the USDA’s main concerns. Scherer added that in 2022, the FSA completed its Climate Change Adaptation Plan to place climate considerations into its programs.
Still, many tools that could potentially help farmers face the effects of climate change have yet to be developed. For example, Kunkel said that farmers need “accurate (weather) forecasts three to six months in advance” to decide on ideal crop varieties — but such technology is not yet available.
Wolbach wrote that “to help us get to a place of being more resilient to climate extremes,” farmers need better support in the form of “increased assistance (grants) for wells, irrigation supplies” and other measures.
As the likelihood of future severe droughts increases due to climate change, Jackson emphasized the importance of consumers prioritizing “local farmers and locally produced items.” Doing so provides farmers with a reliable consumer base during periods of extreme weather and uncertainty, she said.