A survey of more than 200 New York farmers late last summer – during the worst drought in two generations – found that more than 70% of unirrigated, rain-fed field crops and pasture acreage had losses between 30% and 90%, according to a new report published by the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions.
For farmers all over the state, arid conditions were so pervasive that fruit and vegetable growers who had capacity to irrigate lacked water to keep up with the drought. Irrigated farms estimated crop losses of up to 35%, said Shannan Sweet, NatureNet postdoctoral science fellow with Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and The Nature Conservancy.
“New York’s farmers have asked if they should expect more dry summers like the one we had in 2016. The answer is: We don’t know,” said Sweet, also a postdoctoral associate in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science, working with David Wolfe, Professor of Horticulture. “Climate scientists forecast that the number of frost-free days will continue to increase and summers will be getting warmer, increasing water demand for crops.”
The warmth and lack of snow in December 2015, the scarce snow in January and February 2016, and low rainfall and high temperatures during the growing season led to drought conditions throughout New York state. Streams in western and central New York broke records for low water flow by late July and August.
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation put the state on a drought watch, while the Finger Lakes region and western portions of the state, in particular, battled dry conditions. The drought was so acute that the USDA’s Farm Service Agency declared most counties in the region natural disaster areas. This resulted in eligibility for financial relief in the form of low-cost loans for farmers, according to Sweet.
Fruit growers in western New York lost about 52% of their crop, due to the drought, as grape growers in that region lost 26%. Western berry growers lost 96%, while the state’s eastern berry growers lost about 75%, according to the survey.
To protect against drought, farmers said they would expand irrigation capacity, increase water-holding capacity, improve soil organic matter, obtain drought-resistant crops, consult online tools for long-range forecasting, and seek training about drought.