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Drought turns parts of Connecticut into a natural disaster area

Extreme Drought in Eastern Connecticut
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Provider Farm in Salem also raises grass-fed beef cattle. The drought has kept the farm’s pastures from growing, and owner Hannah Tripp says that means she'll be buying hay to supplement cattle feed much earlier in the year than usual. At the same time, those farmers providing the hay are suffering from the same drought, which has been classified as “extreme” in parts of eastern Connecticut.

For Hannah Tripp, these past two years of farming have been a “tale of two seasons.”

Last year, rain left her fields filled with standing water and eroded her planting beds. This year, she said, “before this rain we got on Monday, it was a dust bowl.”

“Our main irrigation pond is probably two feet below its normal level. We’re lucky it still has water in it. I know other area farmers who are out of water,” she said. “This is definitely the lowest I have ever seen it.”

Most of New England is experiencing drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Areas of eastern Massachusetts, virtually all of Rhode Island and parts of eastern Connecticut are listed by the agency as experiencing “extreme drought,” which is the agency’s second-worst categorization.

The dry weather is causing federal officials to act.

On Friday, state officials announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared New London and Windham counties natural disaster areas.

The designation means farm operators in those counties – and the nearby counties of Hartford, Middlesex and Tolland – are eligible for emergency loan assistance and crop insurance payments.

Speaking on Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live, state Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt said he’s getting questions about whether droughts will be the new normal.

“I said, ‘Well, remember last year, we had way too much water. What’s to be expected is you can no longer expect anything,’” he said.

Farmers interested in applying for the assistance must contact their local Farm Service Agency office, Hurlburt said.

Extreme Drought in Eastern Connecticut
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Hannah Tripp, owner of Provider Farm, speaks at a news conference with (from left) U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Department of Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney. Parts of eastern Connecticut have been designated "extreme drought" areas. These conditions create major burdens for farmers, including crop loss and increased need for labor and watering.

Friday’s drought declaration came as thunderstorms and heavy rainfall on Tuesday caused flash flooding in southern New England. Near Providence, Rhode Island, flooding closed roadways, backed up traffic and saturated basements. More thunderstorms impacted Connecticut Friday.

Experts say the region needs steady rain to end the drought. The heavy, short rainfall brought by the occasional thunderstorm tends to run off, not soak into the ground.

Chris Bassette, co-owner of Killam & Bassette Farmstead in South Glastonbury, said “farmers are the biggest gamblers in the world. Because every year we never know what we’re going to deal with, and weather is always such a huge part of that.”

Bassette said she is having to explain to her customers why some crops aren’t available.

“We can’t walk into a warehouse, grab what we need and put it in the bags for them,” she said.

Hannah Tripp, a lifelong resident of Salem who has farmed for over a decade, said farmers are seeing shifting seasons and longer snaps of cold, hot, and dry weather.

And that’s making farming – an already difficult profession – more and more difficult.

“That’s very challenging for growers to have to deal with the variability and the intensity,” Tripp said. “People who aren’t working outside or with food don’t always understand the impact that the weather is having.”

This story contains information from the Associated Press. Connecticut Public Radio's Lucy Nalpathanchil and Katie Pellico contributed to this report.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.