The aftermath of a cold, rainy May is delaying farmers’ crops and hurting their revenues. Early summer fruits and vegetables on many farms in the state have been delayed, sometimes by up to two weeks, causing a domino effect on the farms’ produce.
The National Weather Service recorded precipitation on 24 days in May in Boston, double the historical average. And it isn’t just this year’s rain that’s hurting farmers across the state, experts say. The unpredictability that has come with the growing threat of climate change, they say, could hurt farmers the most.
This unpredictability has been evident over the last few years. In 2016, the worst drought in more than 50 years hit the state, according to the NOAA; just a year later, in 2017, the state saw higher growing-season rainfall than normal. The year after was very rainy and very warm; and NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is predicting increased chances for a hotter summer than average this year.
MIT climate scientist Peter Huybers said that although the prediction for temperature in the upcoming decades is clear, precipitation in the growing season is much more of an unknown.
“With increased greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, we expect warming and we have seen warming. … What ends up happening in the summer is not nearly so clear [when it comes to rainfall].”
The result, at least for now, is precarious and unforgiving growing seasons.
“We lost quite a bit of money in May," said Chris Smith, president of CN Smith Farm in East Bridgewater. "This year was cold, wet, and just not conducive to farming.”
Smith said that losing a week of the season means losing money on one of his most sensitive and profitable crops — strawberries. He said he most likely can’t get any of that money back.
“Strawberries are such a fragile and perishable crop. They don’t do well in the heat. Once we turn the corner into July … the strawberries go by very fast.”
Other farmers reported similar problems. The rainy weather caused several issues, including making it next to impossible for some farmers to get out into the fields. According to Brad Mitchell, deputy executive director at the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, when it rains like it did in May, “people don’t have a lot of time to get in the fields. It’s just an issue of getting the crops in. It’s an issue of time management.”
Added uncertainty in the last few years is also forcing farmers to prepare for both wet and dry extremes, or risk being ill-equipped for the next bout of extreme weather.
“If you’re going to grow lettuce in Arizona, you’re going to invest in irrigation. If you knew the season was going to be like [this] May, you wouldn’t waste any money on irrigation,” said William McCaffrey, owner of Old Earth Orchards in Taunton. “You have to be equipped to grow as if you’re in Arizona or in Massachusetts any given month.”
And this can be a big draw on farm resources, says Jonathan Grey, outreach director for the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership.
“We have certainly heard from farmers in the region that the weather is impeding their planning,” he said. “It can be a business strain when you’re not getting the revenue when you expect.”
McCaffrey said the long periods of rain in May made it hard to work with his new fruit trees. Without prolonged dry weather, pruning is dangerous for McCaffrey’s trees, which are more prone to diseases in the rain.
How will Massachusetts farmers protect themselves from rainy seasons like this one, and excessively dry seasons like 2016? Several say they use crop diversity to minimize the impact of bad weather on their farms.
Smith said although his strawberries were delayed this season, he had other crops in stock: He produced plentiful greens and cabbage, two crops that like cooler, wetter weather.
For now, Smith says, he will just need to hold on tight and hope for better weather.
“Hopefully we’ll turn the corner, we’ll see some warmer weather now, and we’ll put this behind us,” he said.
Chaiel Schaffel is an intern at WGBH News.