By Ramona du Houx

October 7, 2020

Following two months of severe drought, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) deemed Aroostook County a drought disaster area in September. The designation means farmers in Aroostook and neighboring Penobscot, Piscataquis, Somerset and Washington counties became eligible to apply for emergency farm loans from the USDA Farm Service Agency over the next eight months.

Declining surface water levels parallel conditions Maine experienced during historic droughts in 2001-02 and 2006, as well as a drought in 1947 that led to the worst fires in Maine’s history.

With the lack of rainfall, the streamflow and groundwater go down and wells dry up and crops suffer, unless irrigation equipment has been installed. But for the majority of farms in Maine, that’s a financial burden they can’t mount. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) provides a cost-share program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, that helps farmers invest in farm resources, equipment and technology that encourage sustainable practices, but more outreach needs to happen for farmers to take advantage of it.

The ongoing drought shrunk Aroostook County potato yields. Some of those farmers suffered a double blow. Last spring, when the coronavirus hit and restaurants closed, customers cancelled potatoes orders.

Warm days, cool nights and heavy soils that retain lots of moisture all support Maine’s potato industry. But as climate change kicks in, rain could become more sparse while temperatures increase and Maine’s soil won’t be able to retain the same moisture levels.

Mid-May was a significant period for farmers and scientists, as temperatures warmed without rainfall. Warmer temperatures allowed water to evaporate more quickly, preventing essential groundwater recharge and caused streamflow levels to drop below normal in June. Scientists coined this combination of conditions as a “flash drought,” that was in full swing by mid-June. Then came an abnormally dry summer, with drought conditions continuing throughout September and into October.

 “Farmers are subject to the whims of the weather,” said Bill Sheehan, director of the Department of Environmental Protection’s office in Aroostook County.

Sheehan is working with Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to reinstate the Maine Agricultural Water Management Board. The board was active during Governor John Baldacci’s administration to mitigate issues like this but Governor Paul LePage didn’t appoint members to the board. State statute mandates that the Department of Agriculture commissioner appoint five members, including one potato producer, and the governor appoint three.

“After this year we see how important it is to have the board up, considering these big policy issues,” said Sheehan.

On August 27, farmers delivered to the House Select Committee in Washington D.C. a letter signed by several thousand farmers across the country urging effective policy action to combat climate change, and especially to help farmers and ranchers weather the storm and lead the way towards a more sustainable future. 135 farmers in Maine signed onto the letter.

“We, the undersigned farmers and ranchers, write to express our deep concerns about climate change impacts on agriculture in the United States and to call for solutions that invest in our rural and agricultural communities. Agriculture is on the frontlines of a changing climate,” starts the letter.

The letter underscores the fundamental threat that the climate crisis poses to the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers and the viability of agriculture. This year’s drought was a prime motivator to sign the letter for some.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) organized a webinar with members of the Select Committee and five farmers who signed the letter and shared their stories about how climate change has impacted their operations and lives. They highlighted how Congress can increase support for farmers to implement climate stewardship practices and build resilience to climate stresses. Any climate legislation package will be incomplete without the inclusion of farmers and ranchers as vital partners in the effort to combat climate change.

“Farmers and ranchers work at the frontlines of the climate crisis, where they face extreme weather and shifting pressures from pests and disease driven by a changing climate,” said Eric Deeble, Policy Director at NSAC. “They are committed to be part of the solution to the climate crisis, and this letter outlines how Congress can ensure that they have the tools and resources to be active leaders in climate change adaptation and mitigation. Many of farmer-focused policy solutions were included in the Select Committee’s report, which establishes an ambitious and achievable roadmap for legislators to develop climate legislation.”

Although it is unlikely that Congress will take any action on the House Select Committee’s recommendations until after the November election, the report provides an important roadmap for future congressional action.

Agricultural policy should support farmers in their efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Both the Select Committee’s report and the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA), introduced by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME), showcase farmer-focused climate policy solutions that could be included in any future comprehensive climate bill. Pingree serves on the Agricultural Committee as well as the Appropriations Committee, the latter is where funds are distributed for programs passed by Congress.

In June Congresswoman Pingree said, “Farming has always been a risky business, but this moment is an especially tough one for farmers: climate change is creating unpredictable growing seasons, the economic recession caused by the coronavirus is shifting markets and demand, and trade wars continue to jeopardize our exports. That is why I introduced the comprehensive Agriculture Resilience Act earlier this year. As Congress prepares our coronavirus economic recovery packages, we must use this moment to rethink everything from our broken supply chains to recognizing the critical role that farmers play in moving forward on climate change solutions.”

She also co-sponsorship of H.R. XX, the Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2020, legislation to promote climate-friendly agricultural practices by increasing farmers’ access to carbon markets.

“Facilitating participation in carbon markets is a key way to support farmers in the important role they play in climate solutions and increasing farm income. I’m proud to join a bipartisan, bicameral group of my colleagues on the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which is just one of the bills Congress must pass to support farmers weathering both our economic and environmental crises,” she said.