2017-08-24 / Front Page

Saco farmers face drought conditions

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer


Rain on Friday, Aug. 18 was much needed for farmers such as Tim Leary, but it didn’t change the drought classification from moderate over the past week. Despite the remarkably dry season so far, Leary is confident he and his family will continue farming as they have for many generations. He said the only thing more expensive than water crops is not watering them. (Grant McPherson photo) Rain on Friday, Aug. 18 was much needed for farmers such as Tim Leary, but it didn’t change the drought classification from moderate over the past week. Despite the remarkably dry season so far, Leary is confident he and his family will continue farming as they have for many generations. He said the only thing more expensive than water crops is not watering them. (Grant McPherson photo) SACO – Farmers throughout Maine are forced to make sacrifices as rainfall has slowed in the latter part of summer. Thirty percent of the state was categorized as being in moderate drought conditions as of Tuesday, Aug. 15. Two farmers in Saco, however, are confident they will last another year, but are hoping the dry spell will end soon.

Ben Grant, 31 of Grant Family Farm, has had to learn about the different soil on his new land. He found the area he’s been growing green peppers on McKenney Road is much sandier than on his father’s farm where he grew up. His father Rick Grant died of a heart attack in February, after which time Grant was forced to move his farming efforts on to his grandmother’s land.

“It’s definitely affecting yields,” he said. “At this point I’m not getting what I hoped for, just trying to keep it alive.”

Grant said even after pumping half an inch of water onto his plants, they’re usually dry again within two or three days. He guessed he’ll have between 50 and 60 percent of the green peppers he planned to harvest by the end of the season. The green peppers are planted on plastic beds to help keep moisture in and weeds out, as well as keep the plants warm earlier in the season. However, getting water under the plastic has proved difficult with the dry weather and sandy soil.

“It affects us for sure, makes the winter a little longer,” Grant said.

He also grows cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes, squash and pumpkins. The latter two will be available later in the fall.

Grant can pump water from Nonesuch Brook on McKenney Road, but it’s regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which has the ability to shut the brook down during low flow conditions. There is a flip side however, Grant said, as his produce is worth more when there is less of it as the case might be now. This year is almost as dry as last year, which Grant said was one of the worst he had ever seen.

“It’s always too wet or too dry. You can’t win,” he said. “But if it could shower once a week that would help out a lot.”

Grant is already thinking about what he can do differently next year, such as plant the peppers on a different field, in addition to laying tubes under the bed of plastic to direct water more efficiently. He also has a spray gun and overhead irrigation system that works well but still causes some water to evaporate.

“This season has been a big learning curve, I’m used to farming on Grant Road,” he said. “The soil is so sandy here it doesn’t act like a sponge. It’s been harder getting water to it. Next year I’ll grow something better suited for the dirt here, shift things around a little bit.”

Grant has considered crop insurance but that too is expensive. He said even during a tough year he can get more money from selling his produce than insurance will pay. He’s still done well this year, despite it being his second worst ever.

“You can plan all you want and be the best farmer in the world, you still have to deal with Mother Nature,” Grant said.

While farming isn’t for everyone, Grant said he enjoys being outside and finds the work rewarding. Instilling the proper work ethic in his helpers can be challenging because many young people on summer vacation are not excited to work long hours in the hot sun. Grant’s not sure he would have become a farmer if he didn’t grow up on a farm, but he’s used to the workload now.

“The more you put into it, the more you get out of it, usually,” he said.

Helping Grant with the transition to his new land is Tim Leary of Leary Farm on Flag Pond Road. Leary, 58, loaned Grant space in his greenhouse at the beginning of the season, as well as helped haul produce. Leary was glad to help because Rick Grant helped Leary when he first started farming vegetables about six years ago.

“He’s not my competition, he’s my friend,” Leary said. “I’m willing to help and glad I can.”

Leary’s farm is 540 acres, 55 of which are used for vegetables and another 125 are used for hay. Leary pumps water from a natural pond on the property that was expanded to hold 2.5 million gallons of water and designed to last a full year, but he’s used all of it already this season. He has considered expanding it or finding another source of water. Another problem is hay in his fields was cut a month ago, and should be ready to cut again, but hasn’t recovered because of the dry weather.

“We pick and choose the most stressed crops and do what we can,” Leary said. “It would be nice to have one rainy weekend, never mind the tourists.”

Leary has considered improving his irrigation infrastructure. He has a gun that can cover a 20-foot by 700-foot area, but it’s small by most measures. Leary said an overhead watering system would cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. He might invest in it if a government cost sharing program can make it affordable.

“The United States Department of Agriculture has programs for farmers in the interest of saving money and water,” Leary said.

In the meantime, Leary has stopped watering an acre of cabbage to prioritize other crops. He said it can be stressful at times but he relaxes, knowing his oldest son Kevin can run the business. Leary is ready to offer guidance but allows his children to take the business in the direction they choose.

“We address the parts we can and don’t worry about the rest,” he said.

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com.

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