‘Heatflation’ Hits the Farmers Market

This summer’s heat and drought have driven New York farmers’ input costs up and their yields down, straining their finances and further pushing up food prices.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   September 6, 2022
Right now, you dig down, its powder, says Long Island farmer David Fink of his soil after an exceptionally dry summer. Corn stalks that would normally be at least eight feet tall barely reach five. | Colin Kinniburgh/New York Focus

It’s a fixture of fall. Every year, Fink’s Country Farm on the north shore of Long Island hosts a corn maze, where visitors snake through alleys of the quintessential American crop. But this year, the Finks worry the maze might be a bit of a dud. Hot, dry conditions throughout much of the summer have stunted the corn’s growth, and patches of it are barely five feet tall.

The maze is just one of the many casualties of the northeast drought that in recent weeks has struck broad swaths of New York state, from Montauk to Buffalo. About half of the state has been unusually dry since early August, with several stretches — spanning much of Long Island, New York City, and the southern part of the Hudson Valley — hit by weeks of severe drought. Altogether, 46 of the state’s 62 counties are under a drought watch.

The parched conditions are taking a toll on farmers — and putting an extra pinch on customers’ wallets. The lack of rain has given farmers little choice but to water constantly, and even a wet day like Tuesday will do little to change the equation at this stage in the growing season.

David Fink, who runs the Long Island farm and roadside stand along with his wife, says his pumps have been running almost 24/7, drawing well water to spray the fields. Those pumps run on diesel, whose prices hit near-record highs this summer after jumping more than 60 percent in a year.

Between the high energy costs and the long hours of watering — at least twice what he would normally do — Fink says he’s paying more than ever to keep his crops alive. Those higher prices are starting to show up at the farm stand, giving New Yorkers a taste of “heatflation” — a recent coinage to describe a global phenomenon, as climate change has deepened the strain on an already fragile food system.

Jonathan Sujecki, who runs a farm a few miles up the road from the Finks, says he’s had to increase prices about 15 percent to account for all the extra costs. A pound of tomatoes that might have cost $3.50 last year is now $4. But he’s still taking a hit himself.

“You try to pass on what you can [to the customer] but you can only pass on so much,” Sujecki said. “We’re really hurting from the cost of everything.”

Sujecki says the drought is as bad as any he can remember since he took over the farm in 2009, becoming the fifth generation in his family to work the land. Summer and fall droughts in the northeast are projected to increase as climate change intensifies, though it’s not clear by how much. Sylvia Reeves, northeast drought information coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), says drought risk in the region remains understudied.

“Drought has its feet in many different realms: lack of precipitation, of course, increased warming, and extended extreme heat periods that are climatologically unusual for the area,” Reeves said.

Higher temperatures mean that whatever water does reach the soil evaporates faster. As the ground dries up, it’s also less able to absorb rain, especially the sudden storm bursts that account for most of the northeast’s precipitation in the summer months. NOAA’s latest report on the region shows that Long Island would need more than a foot of rain to end the current drought.

The pumps aren’t the only ones running overtime to try to make up the difference. Watering also means nearly nonstop work for the farmers, moving sprinklers and other equipment from one field to another. Fink says he works an 80-hour week in normal conditions, but that’s lately gone up to 100 hours or more.

But it’s a losing battle against the weather. Extreme heat bites into many harvests even with heavy watering. Fruit, for example — including many we typically think of as vegetables, like tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers — are less plentiful because the flowers that produce them wilt and fall off the plant too soon.

Then there are field crops that can’t be watered, including key feed crops for livestock. Those have been especially hard hit by this year’s drought. As of early August, yields of corn grown for grain were down 10 percent in New York compared to last year, according to federal data. And the latest weekly report shows that hay production is well behind schedule, with only 18 percent of farmers having completed a third cutting — down from an average of 44 percent over the last five years.

‘It’s been horrendous’

Rick Osofsky is sick of hearing about the beautiful weather. The owner of Ronnybrook Farm Dairy, Osofksy has spent the summer listening to news anchor after news anchor touting the nonstop sunshine just as it’s been torching his business.

Osofsky manages a herd of about 100 cows in the eastern Hudson Valley, near the border with Massachusetts and Connecticut — a “tiny” dairy operation by current standards, he says, but big enough to make Ronnybrook a mainstay at New York City farmers markets and some grocery stores.

A diesel pump draws water from Jonathan Sujeckis well to irrigate his fields. His energy costs have skyrocketed along with the price of diesel. | Colin Kinniburgh/New York Focus

The farm normally grows the bulk of the grain to feed its cows, mainly corn and alfalfa; this year, Osofsky estimates, they’ve lost half of those crops. He’s resorted to buying lower-quality hay, but even those kinds of supplements have been hard to find lately.

Cows “hate the heat,” Osofsky said. They normally stay outside at pasture much of the year, but they’ve lately had to spend most of their time in the barn, with extra fans and sprinklers to keep them cool.

The few bouts of rain that have come through the area lately have done little to change the situation, Osofsky said, because it’s too late in the season. “There’s nothing that rain is going to do now to change the crop production that we’ve had. Nothing.”

Altogether, Osofsky expects the drought to cut Ronnybrook’s annual milk production by 20 percent. They now sell a half-gallon of milk for $3.10 on the wholesale market, up from $2.80 a few months ago. “It’s been horrendous,” he said.

The effects of the drought extend beyond agriculture.

In parts of Massachusetts, where the drought has reached “extreme” levels — conditions more often seen in the American West — “there are streams that are now disconnected and the fish can’t swim,” Reeves said. “They’re just dying in little puddles.”

In New York, reservoir levels have declined. The seven major reservoirs that supply New York City’s tap water are currently at 72 percent of capacity, down from a normal 84 percent.

Long stretches of dry weather are the flip side of a more familiar climate impact in the northeast: heavy rain, like the deadly downpour brought by Hurricane Ida a year ago or the thunderstorms that flooded parts of the Bronx and upper Manhattan earlier this summer. Drought can actually make flooding worse: when the soil can’t absorb sudden rain, all that water instead runs off into drains that run the risk of overflowing. That pattern has played out to devastating effect around the world this summer, from Yellowstone to Pakistan to Texas.

The Finks say they’ve been forced to raise vegetable prices by 50 cents a pound this year, with constant irrigation further pushing up costs. | Colin Kinniburgh/New York Focus

When it comes to agriculture, though, dry weather can come with silver linings. Apples, for instance, are expected to grow smaller, but sweeter — something many consumers prefer. Steve Ammerman, spokesperson for the New York Farm Bureau, says dry conditions also make some crops less vulnerable to disease, meaning farmers who would normally spray them with pesticides can hold off.

Climate Resilient Farming

As drought becomes more common, there are a number of techniques farmers can use to irrigate efficiently and improve soil health, helping their fields better retain what moisture is available.

One key investment is drip irrigation — thin strips of plastic pipe that water crops drop by drop throughout the day. Fink says 60 percent of his crops are now covered by drip irrigation, without which he’d be “six feet under.”

Techniques such as mulching, reducing tillage, and planting cover crops during the winter can also go a long way in making fields more drought resistant, primarily by increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil, which retains water.

These techniques come with their own costs, particularly up front. Rebecca Maden, a researcher at the University of Vermont’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, says that can be a barrier even for big farms.

“When I’ve had conversations with them about adopting practices even as simple as cover cropping, they’re like, ‘I can’t afford that, I don’t have the time,’” she said. “So the low-hanging solutions to these problems are very inaccessible, just because they’re struggling financially.”

Fink says his pumps have been running almost 24/7, when they would normally run only every few days. That means extra work for farmers, too. | Courtesy Michelle Fink

As “regenerative agriculture” has gone increasingly mainstream, though, resources have followed. The United States Department of Agriculture distributes grants to farmers through programs like the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is due to get a $1 billion boost from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act. New York is stepping up its support too, awarding $8 million in grants for “climate resilient farming” this year, compared to $12 million over the last seven years.

Ammerman says continued investment in research is key. A bill signed by Governor Kathy Hochul last year — and backed by groups ranging from the Farm Bureau to Earthjustice — takes one step in this direction, directing state agencies to promote soil health and climate resiliency through applied research.

Maden, herself a farmer in Orwell, Vermont — just over the state line from New York — said it might also be time for the farmers in the historically lush northeast to start taking cues from their counterparts in more arid areas, who have been adapting to an increasingly unforgiving climate for decades.

“Farmers have coped with these conditions all over the world, and might have something to offer us,” she said.

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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