Local Produce Supplies Stay Strong

Co-op growers combat drought with ingenuity and irrigation.

Hot, dry weather isn’t hurting the Co-op’s supply of local produce, said perishables merchandiser Dot Benham.

“Thankfully we haven’t seen a change,” she said, “because our farmers are so good at what they do. Our growers are taking the conditions in stride and making deliveries as always.”

This summer continues to batter the northeast with hot temperatures, dry air, and very little rainfall, leading to widespread drought in southern New England. According to the United States Drought Monitor (USDM), drought is creeping into northern New England as well, including the rich farmland of the Upper Valley. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rated at least half the pastures from Rhode Island to Maine in poor to very poor condition.

With so much drought to deal with, how do local growers keep up supplies?

“It’s a lot of work,” Dot said. “Most of our growers are having to irrigate their crops.”

The Art and Science of Irrigation

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Steve Fulton, Blue Ox Farm

During a drought or extended dry period, the growing season doesn’t come to a halt, but it’s tricky and unpredictable. Many Co-op growers this summer are turning to irrigation, a practice that’s part art, part science, and about as old as agriculture itself.  

“A lot of New Hampshire and Vermont farmers use drip irrigation when it’s this dry,” said Steve Fulton, a long-time Co-op supplier and owner of Blue Ox Farm, a certified organic farm in Enfield, NH. “It does a good job and you don’t need to pump as much water.”

According to the United States Geological Survey, irrigation has been around for as long as humans have been cultivating plants. “Man’s first invention after he learned how to grow plants from seeds,” wrote the USGS, “was probably a bucket.”

Simple enough, but irrigating farmland without crippling water supplies isn’t easy. Nearly 40 percent of all the fresh water used in the United States goes to irrigate crops. Much of the irrigation water can’t be reused because it evaporates in the fields.

In the western U.S., farmers rely primarily on flood irrigation, a low-tech method of irrigating crops that’s little more than buckets of water poured en masse onto fields. In flood-irrigation systems, water is simply pumped onto the fields, often from lakes and rivers far away. The water flows along the ground among the crops, drenching the soil. What isn’t absorbed evaporates.

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Drip irrigation system

In the northeast, many growers, like those who supply the Co-op, rely on drip-irrigation systems, a process much more efficient and eco-friendly than flood irrigation.

In drip-irrigation systems, water is flushed through plastic piping that is either laid along rows of crops or buried beneath plastic sheets at the rootlines. Holes in the pipes irrigate crops, cutting down on evaporation and saving water.

Irrrigation means growers spend even more hours in the fields, relying on experience and ingenuity to make sure pumps are running correctly.

Steve says even with the extra effort, the dry conditions are better than the alternative.

“Most Upper Valley soils are very sandy,” he said. “We actually can have a lot more problems in a wet year than in a year like this.”

Learn More

Look for local produce in our stores now. Deliveries daily. Want to know more about the Co-op’s local growers? Got a question or comment? Email comment@coopfoodstore.com. 

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Ken Davis

Ken Davis is the Co-op's senior copywriter. Email him at kdavis@coopfoodstore.com.