Normal no longer applies: Cape Elizabeth farmers adapt to changing climate

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CAPE ELIZABETH — As one of the hottest summers on record wreaks havoc on farms across the country, farmers here are faring a little better, with mixed success.

And, despite the rest of the United States being in the midst of the worst drought since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, Maine has managed to avoid any severe water shortages. Even so, some farms’ water supplies are scraping the barrel.

Alewive’s Brook Farm‘s co-manager, Town Councilor Caitlin Jordan, said her family farm’s main water supply, the Alewive Brook, has shrunk dramatically since she was young, running dry last year.

“We used to put a row boat in the water and have to wear lifejackets,” she said. Now it just comes up to your ankles.”

The brook, which runs the length of the farm and draws from the Great Pond, is so low this year the farm has had to run irrigation out to its far lettuce fields, which is expensive, Jordan said.

There has been so little rain this summer in Cape Elizabeth, Jordan said, that she ended up carrying buckets of water out to watermelons planted by her young niece and nephew so they wouldn’t get discouraged if the plants died.

Although Maine’s summer peak temperatures haven’t set any records, it’s been significantly warmer compared to last year, said National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Ekster in Gray.

The weather has been relatively warm, historically, for the last decade, but Maine techinically hasn’t had a heat wave since 2002, when the state had nine consecutive days of temperatures above 90 degrees, he said.

This July has been about 4 degrees warmer than last year, with every day above 80 degrees, Ekster said. In contrast, June proved to be significantly wetter than average, with more than 11 inches of rain – the most rainfall for June in 15 years.

The wet, then dry spells play games with crops like lettuce, one of Cape farmers’ biggest sellers, causing it to “bolt” – shooting the flowering heads straight up and giving it a bitter taste.

Penny Jordan, of Jordan’s Farm on Wells Road, and distant cousin of Caitlin Jordan, said the weather has caused some of their lettuce to bolt, a reaction that makes them more diligently plan which crops will get priority.

Jordan’s water supply comes from Sebago Lake and two nearby ponds. But even with a decent water supply, the heat forces them to run drip tape to get the water where it needs to be, which has it’s drawbacks.

“You can run drip tape all day, but it doesn’t really work if the wind comes on” because it will blow away, she said. “Overall, I think we have an OK water supply. It just becomes tedious and time consuming to irrigate everything.”

Green Spark Farm on Fowler Road draws its water from a 400-foot well drilled three years ago, and has been able to stay on top of the heat with the labor-intensive watering, owner Austin Chadd said.

“Everything likes this heat,” he said. “Other than having to run drip tape constantly, everything else is good with this weather, it’s perfect.”

Historically, this is not the driest year for farms in Cape Elizabeth, Penny Jordan said, but the weather extremes are getting more dramatic.

On one end, the spring is lasting longer, she said, and on the other, the snow is coming early, in October and November. This has forced her farm to learn how to adapt quickly to the changing climate.

“I know what the normal used to be, but that no longer seems to apply. You have to respond in the moment,” Jordan said. “It becomes even more important to respond to that moment because you don’t know if you’re going to have another moment.”

One of the most evident changes this year was a long spring, which made for a short strawberry season that didn’t produce the volume they usually expect, she said.

It’s crucial to adapt to these changes and to try to plan for the unexpected, she said.

“It’s a puzzle, and I like problem-solving,” Jordan said.

But, no matter how well a farmer plans their season, sometimes it’s out of their control.

“The hardest thing about farming,” Caitlin Jordan said, “is relying on mother nature.”

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.

Sidebar Elements

Caitlin Jordan, co-manager of Alewive’s Brook Farm on Old Ocean House Road in Cape Elizabeth, holds up lettuce picked before most of the crop “bolted,” Friday, July 20. Lettuce bolts, or flowers too quickly, with long periods of hot weather after heavy rain.

Austin Chadd, owner of Green Spark Farm on Fowler Road in Cape Elizabeth, prepares a pressure washer to spray the dirt off recently harvested carrots, Friday, July 20.

Austin Chadd, owner of Green Spark Farm in Cape Elizabeth, washes off carrots in prepartion for a farmer’s market, Friday, July 20. Chadd said he sells about 80 percent of his produce at farmer’s markets.