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Drought hitting NH farmers' wallets

New Hampshire Sunday News

August 06. 2016 9:08PM
New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill poses with a trio of dairy cows at her family's Stuart Farm in Stratham. (SUSAN LIRAKIS PHOTO)

CONCORD — If the federal government grants New Hampshire’s request for a drought disaster declaration, farmers in all but the southwest corner of the state can qualify for emergency assistance programs.

But Lorraine Merrill, the state’s agriculture commissioner, said that help would only go so far. “What it primarily does is it would make low-interest, emergency loans available to farmers,” she said.

Assistance also could be available under the federal Emergency Conservation Program to help farmers pay for new irrigation equipment for perennial crops such as apples, grapes or blueberries, she said.

Merrill said this is the worst drought the state has seen in a long time. “The southern part of the state is really hurting pretty badly,” she said. “We’re hearing things like irrigation ponds that have dried up, and crops are way, way off.”

Some farmers may need to take loans to drill wells or run new water lines, Merrill said. And the assistance also could help sustain farmers who are experiencing major crop losses because of the long dry spell.

“That means money that’s not coming in that they can’t pay their bills with,” she said. “And it often means not only may they lose crops but they may have to pay to replace them.”

“It’s like a double whammy,” she said.

For instance, dairy farmers who can’t produce enough hay and corn to feed their animals may have to buy feed from somewhere else, said Merrill. That’s what she’s had to do at her own Stratham dairy farm, where yield has been down because of the drought.

So how are Merrill’s animals faring? “The cows are doing remarkably well considering we’ve had some really hot weather,” she said. “That’s what they don’t like, so we work hard keeping them cool.”

Cows don’t eat as much in hot weather and don’t produce as much milk, she said. At her farm, they use large fans to keep the barn cooler.

Vegetable farmers tend to have irrigation systems to water their crops, Merrill said, but the dry conditions have meant extra expense and work for them to do so.

If granted, the drought disaster designation would help farmers in Grafton, Rockingham and Strafford counties qualify for disaster-related assistance. Those counties were specified because some crop losses there — including forage alfalfa, pumpkins and blueberries — have exceeded 30 percent.

But the declaration would mean farmers in all contiguous counties would also qualify for assistance, according to Merrill. And that means all New Hampshire counties except Cheshire would be included.

Meanwhile, Merrill said, Massachusetts has made a similar request, and Cheshire County farmers would be eligible for assistance if neighboring counties in northern Massachusetts qualify for help.

In her Aug. 4 letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Hassan wrote, “New Hampshire’s agriculture industry is critical to our economy and our way of life, and a drought disaster declaration for these three counties is critical to minimizing the negative impacts of the recent severe drought conditions to this important industry.”

The drought recently prompted the state Department of Environmental Services to urge residents to conserve water.

The agency lists seven counties — essentially the bottom half of the state — in a “severe” drought and is advising residents to refrain from outdoor water use except for hand-watering of vegetable gardens.

The three northernmost counties are listed as “abnormally dry” by DES.

The department recommends folks use water only for essential purposes, such as drinking, cooking and cleaning, and eliminate other uses, such as watering lawns.

But the state has no authority to implement restrictions such as outdoor watering bans; under state law, that’s up to the municipalities to enforce, according to Jim Martin, DES spokesman.

About 100 public water systems have issued water bans or voluntary restrictions in response to the drought conditions, according to DES.

What some may not realize is that those restrictions apply not only to public water supplies but to private wells, Martin said.

“In a way, it’s even more important for people on private wells to pay attention to these restrictions, because it is much more difficult for people on private wells to actually know how much water they have available to them,” he said.

If you’re on a public water system, the municipality has to make sure residents have safe drinking water, Martin said. “But if you have a private well, you’re on your own.”

For the farmers, there’s a lot more at stake than brown grass. They are used to operating with low margins, but this kind of drought “can be another straw on the back of the camel,” Merrill said.

And it comes during an especially tough time for dairy farmers, she said. “We have had two years of low milk prices and really losing margins, so this is particularly painful for dairy farmers.”

Years ago, New Hampshire’s farmers were protected under the New England Dairy Compact, which provided a floor for milk prices. But the program, which had to be authorized by the U.S. Senate, had opposition from other regions and milk processors, Merrill recalled.

The compact was up for reapproval and a hearing was finally scheduled.

The hearing date was Sept. 11, 2001.

“And it never took place, and they never rescheduled it because they knew they didn’t have the support,” Merrill recalled.

If New Hampshire gets its drought declaration, the federal assistance may help farmers get through this dry spell. But what they really need is water, Merrill said.

“You can’t make back what you’ve already lost, but rain would help us save more of what’s to come.”

“We’re definitely praying for rain,” she said.

• A list of statewide water restrictions can be found at the DES website.

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