Drought climate could hurt fall tourism season

The light rain hitting Greater Nashua late last week was not enough to quell concerns about the upcoming autumn tourism season, nor did the precipitation quiet the irrigation pumps working overtime at many farms in the region.

Federal drought monitor maps show Hillsborough and Rockingham counties have been particularly dry over the past month, making some in New Hampshire’s agriculture and tourism industries somewhat nervous.

Most of the two counties appear as being in "severe" or "moderate" drought conditions. According to the map, the middle part of the state is in "moderate drought" and much of the north country is experiencing "abnormally dry" conditions.

The maps are produced by the University of Nebraska, in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Gail McWilliam Jellie, director of the state’s Division of Agricultural Development,
said the drought situation in the state is not "across the board."

"Some places it’s severe, some places less severe. It’s not necessarily affecting people the same way," she said.

Irrigation plays an important role in all crops. From the maps she has seen, the Seacoast area in particular is "having issues," she said.

The lack of natural precipitation has some worrying, and many scrambling, to fill the gap in the natural water cycle to ensure healthy and abundant crops come harvest time.

"I’ve never seen a drought duration for so long. It’s putting a lot of stress on the ponds," said Chip Hardy at Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis, who has an aggressive watering plan in place.

The farm, a popular local pick-your-own destination, has about 150 acres of apple trees. Hardy said his apples are "sizing up nicely" and people buying the farm’s produce are taking his price adjustments in stride.

Regarding the dry weather, Hardy said, "if you’re faced with one extreme or the other, I guess this would be better."

Excessive wet weather, he said, could lead to disease pressure and loss of crops. Though he’s also facing increased operating costs to keep his 12 irrigation pumps running for his apple, pumpkin and other crops, he is happy with the quality of his products.

Hardy said he has about a dozen irrigation ponds on his land, but their levels are low.

"We really could use some rainfall," he said, adding he’d need "quite a bit" to recover from this really dry period. "You try to do the best you can."

Keith Marshall, farm manager at Wilson Farm’s Litchfield operation, said the farm has been watering heavily.

"Everything is looking good, we just have to work hard at it," he said.

The farm’s corn crop is getting watered 18-20 hours a day with pumps consuming about 200 gallons of fuel daily. Marshall said 90 percent of his time is spent irrigating.

"We’re running water constantly. It’s a struggle," he said.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom.

"If you have water and equipment to irrigate it’s actually a great growing year. We’ve got heat and have got water. Nights are in the upper 60s," Marshall said, referring to the temperature. "Daytime it’s in the 90s. Things are growing like crazy."

Milford farmer Sean Trombly said for people in his situation it all depends what they have for ground and water access.

"Some farmers are going to be fine. Luckily for me I’ve got really good ground," he said.

Trombly grows a myriad of crops on land bought by his grandfather in the 1950s. He said his family "bought one of the best farms in southern New Hampshire, on some of the best soil in the country."

"I’m thankful everyday for it," he said.

"I’m a young guy," said Trombly, who is in his 40s, "but I know how to diversify in what to grow and where you grow it."

Trombly spoke recently while working to relocate irrigation equipment on his Back River Road land. He admitted that it could cost more for products this harvest season as farmers will have to figure in fuel, labor and irrigation infrastructure costs made necessary by the lack of natural irrigation.

"Others are hurting a lot more than I am," he said.

His corn prices rose a little, but vegetable costs have been stable.

"I have not raised prices. I don’t know that I really will. I probably should," he concluded.

It’s not only an issue of more fuel being used to power irrigation systems that could raise prices for some, said Trombly, it is the lack of a crop that could force them up because of supply and demand.

What is likely to take a hit is feed hay.

"Anyone buying feed hay is really going to be in for a surprise," Trombly said, predicting it will be "impacted a lot, especially the second crop."

Second cuttings may yield a lot less hay but he said it has to be removed in anticipation of a third cutting, whether it gets irrigated by effort or naturally by Mother Nature.

"Hay production in this county is grown on upper land where there’s not a lot of water access. There’s not a lot of cost benefit to irrigate hay unless water is close by," Trombly said.

Trees get it first’

Leaf-peepers heading into New Hampshire should still be satisfied at what they find, said Kyle Lombard, a forest entomologist with the state’s Division of Forests and Lands.

He was recently flying over North Country forests doing work as part of an annual summer survey of forest land and said there is nothing showing any real drought stress.

"I don’t expect anything to affect our color season," he said.

Kris Neilsen, communications manager for the New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism Development, said fall is the state’s second busiest tourism season after summer.

The industry bring in more than 9 million visitors to the Granite State.

"I don’t really see a lot of drought effects in the forest," Lombard said, although he noticed rivers are low and dry conditions along roads and fields. Up in the woods, however, it’s "pretty green out there," he added.

Karen Bennett, a forester with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, said the "easy answer" to the question of how the dry summer may affect fall foliage season is "we don’t know."

"If it continues to be dry we could have an earlier than normal shutdown of the leaves. We might see early yellowing and browning," Bennett said. "If the leaves stop doing their photosynthesizing with a lack of water, we could potentially see an impact. That will be very unusual."

Autumn weather drives the brilliance of the fall foliage, she continued. "What we look for is cold nights followed by warmer, sunny days. That’s when our foliage will be affected. Now is a little early to say."

What could have a lasting effect is the heat. Experts say a warmer fall is not good for the leaves, unless the amount of precipitation increases before fall.

"When it does rain, trees get it first," Lombard said, and it then flows through the rest of the water cycle. "Then humans get it."

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590, dhimsel@nashuatelegraph.com, or @Telegraph_DonH.