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Maine blueberry farmer turns to irrigation after drought cuts yields in half

"Drought issues have increasingly been impacting our yields," Ron Howard, a blueberry farmer in Hope, said.

HOPE, Maine — After drought cut his farm's yields in half, a Maine farmer said he's turning to irrigation for his agricultural operations. 

Ron Howard is a seventh-generation farmer at Brodis Blueberries in Hope. He told NEWS CENTER Maine drought has impacted his farm for a number of years. 

"Wild blueberries grow in a two-year cycle producing buds one year and blossom and fruit the next year," Howard said. "If there is a drought condition in any two-year cycle, our crop is impacted due to either low fruit buds developed or small or fewer fruit sets." 

In this way, even if drought conditions occur every other year, it has a negative impact on his farm's yields, according to Howard. 

"We had great moisture in 2021, but the drought in 2020 produced fewer buds, and the drought this year in 2022 led to a smaller harvest than we would have normally achieved in all three years," he said. 

Now, the Natural Resources Conservation Service is helping Howard with irrigation for his farm. The service first helped him identify funding possibilities. 

Its engineering staff also helped the farm evaluate its water resources, navigate environmental regulations, and design an irrigation system that will meet the agricultural operation's needs in the most effective manner in terms of efficient water usage and a cost standpoint. 

Even with that assistance, Howard said the farm is only able to afford to put an irrigation system on a fraction of its property. 

"But even that has the potential to help us greatly," the farmer said. 

As for other Maine farmers, Howard told NEWS CENTER Maine he's sure most other agriculture operations in the state are looking into irrigation, given recent drought conditions. Having an adequate water source is the first hurdle for most. 

"I hope NRCS and our State Department of Agriculture can continue their good work of finding funding to help farmers make it an economically viable option," Howard said. 

Dr. Lily Calderwood is a wild blueberry specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. She told NEWS CENTER Maine there's a renewed focus on irrigation among farmers in the pine tree state. 

"Large producers already have irrigation in place in the form of sprinklers and large irrigation guns for a few different purposes," she said. "The sprinklers are used in the early spring to mitigate frost damage to flowers during bloom when temperatures dip below freezing, while both the sprinklers and big guns are used to irrigate throughout the season." 

With that said, the majority of small growers (those with 20-500 acres of land) don't have irrigation systems. 

Some smaller growers have old irrigation technology that requires very labor-intensive installation every season, while a few farms are starting to work with the NRCS cost share program to install new, efficient irrigation systems. 

The biggest obstacle farmers face when looking into irrigation is cost. Calderwood said irrigation systems can cost around $3,000 per acre for the actual piping, with more for a well and pump. And with small operations ranging from 20 to 500 acres, it doesn't take long for those expenses to balloon out of reach for some farmers. 

As conditions grow more challenging, UMaine researchers are looking into drought management tools, but the results won't be available for a few years. 

Calderwood said drought adaptation strategies for Maine wild blueberry growers are to: 

  1. Start harvesting earlier in July to increase the number of berries harvested, as well as the quality of those berries. 
  2. Use wood mulch to increase the organic matter content and water holding capacity of the soil. 
  3. Install irrigation systems.

Below is the most recent Maine map from the U.S. Drought Monitor

Credit: U.S. Drought Monitor

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