Tractors plow through clouds of dust. Crops fail to germinate. Dairy cows aren’t producing milk. They can’t even eat and sleep in the heat.
Western New York is in a drought and farmers are feeling the brunt of it.
This past April through June is the driest April-through-June period in history, according to Buffalo’s main weather station, which began recording data in 1943.
The U.S. Drought Monitor has declared the Buffalo area is in “severe drought.” The entire state is on drought watch, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and Erie and Niagara counties are among the state’s worst-afflicted counties.
While homeowners try in vain to water their parched lawns and withered flowers, Buffalo farmers are struggling to keep their fields, orchards and dairies going. They need water but are dealing with 60 percent less rainfall than normal. That’s a 6- to 8-inch deficit, according to the National Weather Service.
The lack of rain is hitting Mammoser Farm, an Eden dairy farm, especially hard.
The 7,000-acre estate, which includes the hay and corn fields, 20 grazing pastures and about 1,500 cows, is too vast to rely on irrigation. The plantation’s fields, used as cow feed, are failing to germinate. They’re producing less and what does grow isn’t as nutritious. The farmers have had to dig into food stockpiles normally reserved for winter to feed the animals.
“It’s choking,” co-owner Ron Mammoser said of the land.
The summer heat isn’t helping either. Cows struggle to milk, eat and sleep in such weather.
Currently, the farm is combating the heat by shading, fanning and sprinkling water over its cows. It has also put up individual plastic shelters for the calves so they can cool down.
Mammoser Farm isn’t alone in its struggle. Amos Zittel & Sons of Eden Valley are feeling the heat just down the road.
The produce farm, which harvests lettuce, corn and squash, relies on an irrigation system that draws water from ponds and streams. But with so little rain, those ponds and streams are now puddles and trickles.
“We’re taking water out, but there’s nothing replenishing it,” said co-owner William “Bill” Zittel.
Too often this summer, Zittel said, he’s had to turn off his water pump so that the creek and pond can catch up.
Meteorologists at the National Weather Service say many of Buffalo’s rivers and streams are in “severe hydrologic drought.” The most impacted streams are about 20 percent lower than normal.
The produce farm has resorted to alternative Erie County water sources and county subsidies to alleviate the strain.
The drought is costing farmers financially too.
Zittel said that the time and labor of monitoring the creek, moving irrigation infrastructure and staggering crop waterings is expensive. All the work may not even matter. Zittel’s not even sure all his crops will make it if the drought continues. He said he may have to cut crops, if necessary.
“I’m hoping we don’t have to make these hard decisions, but it may come to that point,” he said.
For Mammoser, the low crop turnout will be an added stress, on top of the loans, rent, seed and labor wasted on unfruitful crops.
“They’re all very frustrated that they didn’t get the turnouts they normally do,” Mammoser said of his workers and fellow dairy farmers.
Despite forecasts for weekend thunderstorms, National Weather Service meteorologist David Church said the localized storms won’t do much to quench the parched earth’s thirst.
“We’re at the point now that if somebody picks up a quick inch from one of those heavy thunderstorms it doesn’t do much,” he said.
Church explained that the dry conditions make it more likely to be hot, and that the heat then evaporates more water from the ground – making the earth even drier, creating a vicious feedback cycle of dryness and heat. The area was drier than normal to begin with this summer because of the lower than normal snowpack from the mild winter.
“We’re just getting into the drought at this point,” Church said.
There’s no change in sight for the rest of July and August is expected to be hot as well.
Nevertheless, the farmers seem hopeful about their predicament.
“We’re always optimists. That’s why we do this,” Zittel said. “We so put so much work and effort, so you gotta believe.”