Drought Resources for Farmers

For Massachusetts farmers, 2016 was not an easy year when it came to dealing with Mother Nature.

The 2016 Drought – For Massachusetts farmers, 2016 was not an easy year when it came to dealing with Mother Nature. 2016 began with extreme winter cold temperatures and spring freezes, and ended with an extreme drought that the state has not seen since the 1960’s.  The 2016 drought in Massachusetts had major impacts on the Commonwealth’s agricultural producers.  Impacts and losses were felt across the state on all crops.  In general, farmers were impacted by increased costs and reduced revenues as a result of lower yields and quality, however impacts were industry and site specific.  Hay and corn growers had significant yield reductions.  Some growers reported that they weren’t able to get a 2ndcut of hay, while others were unable to get their 1st cut.  Corn was likely the greatest hit crop because of the quantity grown and lack of irrigation.  Municipal drought restrictions were a major impact on the greenhouse/nursery industry.  Although growers are able to water and irrigate to maintain their plant stock because they are considered essential water users, end-user consumers were prohibited from doing so because of municipal water restrictions and bans; the result of which was a significant reduction in sales. 

The peak of the drought hit at the peak of the cranberry harvest season, when water is most crucial.  Although some growers were better off than others, many were concerned about whether or not they would have enough water for harvest and frost protection, and many took measures to supplement irrigation and harvest needs.  Fortunately, a substantial fall rain event in southeastern Massachusetts provided enough water to eliminate this concern, though long-term concerns existed.  The drought caused the size and quantity of the berries to be smaller than usual and in turn grower returns were reduced.

There were reports from some livestock and dairy farmers of water sources going dry and farmers needing to haul in water to keep their animals alive, clean, and hydrated.  The more common concern for the industry however was a loss of home-grown feed crops.  Supplemental purchased feed had to be introduced to herds far earlier than in a typical year, resulting in significantly higher costs than usual.  

Many produce growers saw substantial reduction in their yields, some having to make choices of which crops to save and which to let go.  Yields and quality were down resulting in reduced returns.  Those growers with access to irrigation, especially those with water conservation technologies, such as drip irrigation, were far better off than those without.  Particularly with apple orchards, fruit size was impacted. 

Tree growers, including Christmas trees, reported significant losses.  Reports of near 80% loss of seedlings were heard, the result of which will be felt for years to come. 

MDAR Response - With the mission of ensuring the long-term viability of agriculture in Massachusetts, the Department monitored the drought situation and worked with state and federal partners to provide as many resources as possible to help farmers mitigate impacts of the drought.  The Massachusetts Drought Emergency Loan Program was created by the Baker Administration to assist farm businesses with financial stability and help recover revenues lost as the result of the drought.  In addition, MDAR was able to secure $250,000 of grant funding for a second found of Emergency Drought funding through the Agricultural and Environmental Enhancement Program (AEEP) to fund water conservation technologies on farms impacted by the drought.

Drought Preparedness Resources

Prepare Your Farm or Ranch Before Drought Strikes

Having a good drought plan in place can help your operation weather even the most severe drought conditions. Your plan should be part of a comprehensive conservation plan that considers the kinds and conditions of all of your resources, and consider how crops, forage, and other resources have reacted to drought in the past.

Precipitation is the largest single determinant of drought. Temperature and other climate elements are also important. It is not uncommon for drought periods to be accompanied by higher summer temperatures. Drought planning involves preparing for not only average conditions, but also extremes. Thus, producers should know the extent of their current drought conditions and what the expectations are for the coming week, month and season. A good knowledge of your location's climate will be indispensable in a successful drought mitigation effort. Your plan should help your operation outlast the extremes of climate.

Here are some ideas on water, land, and crop management for you to consider while creating your drought plan:

Water Management

  • Evaluate all types of irrigation systems appropriate for your operation and choose the one that will help you lose less water to evaporation, percolation, and runoff.
  • Look for ways to make your existing irrigation system more efficient and easier to maintain.
  • Build a water storage system that holds water for use during irrigation season.
  • Store water in ditches along fields.
  • Install water measurement devices that keep track of water use.
  • Use water from deep aquifers instead of surface water.

Land Management Ideas

  • Use conservation tillage (crop residue left on your field after harvest) to increase soil moisture and reduce evaporation.
  • Use conservation practices that reduce runoff and encourage infiltration of water into the soil.
  • Closely monitor soil moisture. (Ask your local NRCS office for a complimentary copy of the agency publication "Estimating Soil Moisture by Feel and Appearance.")
  • Maintain and establish riparian buffers, filter strips, grassed waterways, and other types of conservation buffers near streams and other sources of water.
  • Know your animals' forage needs. Contract early to make sure you will have enough hay during dry times or find alternative feed sources.
  • Raise animals that do not consume large quantities of water.
  • Cull herds according to a schedule that will maximize your profits.

Crop Management Ideas

  • Plant crops that withstand dryness, hold water, and reduce the need for irrigation.
  • Rotate crops in ways that increase the amount of water that enters the soil.
  • Shift to cropping systems that are less water dependent than your current system.

For technical assistance to put these ideas into action, contact your local NRCS office.


On September 30, 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated its disaster declaration to designate 12 counties as primary natural disaster areas and an additional two counties as contiguous natural disaster areas due to losses caused by the recent drought.  The disaster declaration makes farms in designated counties eligible for assistance from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), including emergency loans.  Disaster declaration is based on the reporting of crop loss to the FSA and the U.S. Drought Monitor.  The counties named as primary natural disaster areas are:













Those counties named as contiguous natural disaster areas also qualify for natural disaster assistance and are:



All counties listed above were designated natural disaster areas and are now eligible to receive low interest emergency loans (EM) from FSA.  In addition to the EM loan program, FSA has a variety of programs that can provide assistance but do not require a disaster declaration.  These programs include:

Farmers are encouraged to contact or visit their local USDA Service Centers for additional information and assistance.  Additional information is also available online at http://disaster.fsa.usda.gov

Additional Resources

MDAR will administer $250,000 of grant funding through its Agricultural Environmental Enhancement Program (AEEP) for water conservation projects that help farms reduce their operational impact on the environment and better prepare for, and recover after, this years’ severe drought.  Selected proposals will be reimbursed up to $25,000 or 85% of total project costs of approved projects. 

Agricultural operations interested in applying will need to submit their Request for Response (RFR) by 4:00pm on January 6th, 2017.  For a copy of the application, visit the AEEP website or call 617-626-1739.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is a valuable resource to farmers seeking long-term conservation technologies and strategies.  Farmers are encouraged to contact or visit their NRCS Local Service Centers for assistance on long-term water management solutions.

Other Emergency Loan Programs:

Water Tanker Companies links to PDF file for emergency water needs.

UMass Extension 2016 Drought Information and Resources

Emergency Disaster Education Network (EDEN)

General Drought Information

Drought Information:  http://www.mass.gov/eea/drought/#cities-and-towns

Drought Management:  http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dcr/water-res-protection/water-data-tracking/drought-status.html

Drought Management Task Force:  http://www.mass.gov/eea/waste-mgnt-recycling/water-resources/preserving-water-resources/partners-and-agencies/water-resources-commission/drought-management-task-force.html


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