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Nashoba Valley farmers unsure if state drought loan program will help

At Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, owner Ann Harris had to pay unusually high labor costs to have young apple trees, including those pictures, watered by hand thanks to the months-long drought. Nashoba Valley Voice/Chris Lisinski

Despite feeling the repercussions of a substantial recent drought, some farmers in northern Massachusetts initially expressed ambivalence about a new state program offering loans to help local growers affected by the weather.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s office announced an emergency loan fund last week after months of well-below-average rainfall. The program will give “micro-loans” of $5,000 to $10,000 to qualified family farms and businesses that were hit hard by the drought.

However, some local farm owners said in interviews that they were not sure just how useful the program would be to them.

“Me, personally, I’m going to make it through this year because we have irrigation,” said Carl Hills, owner of Kimball Fruit Farm in Pepperell. “But I know a lot of guys aren’t so fortunate, and I think since they’ve lost so much money, I don’t think a loan is going to perk them up.”

Hills, like many others in his field, has seen some of his crops suffer through an arid summer, particularly his corn and lettuce. Many of his plants were fine — and some even grew beyond expectations thanks to the heat — but Hills does not expect to turn a profit this summer.

He is likely not alone, given the full extent of the drought. Between the start of March and the end of August, Lowell saw about 9.6 fewer inches of rain than the 30-year average for that timespan, according to data collected by a National Weather Service Cooperative Weather Observer.

The U.S. Drought Monitor categorizes almost a quarter of the state, including all of Lawrence and Suffolk counties and most of Middlesex and Norfolk counties, as being in “extreme drought,” the second-highest level on a scale of five.

“I’m going to be 61 this year, and I’ve never seen it like this,” Hills said. “I’ve never seen the bottom of our pond. It’s a very strange year.”

Hills credited “diversification” of his crops for ensuring that he can make it through a tough year without a profit — some of the more successful crops such as tomatoes and raspberries are helping cover for those more affected.

State officials anticipate their emergency loan program will run through November, and they will give out up to $1 million total in loans. Recipients will have six months before they must begin paying back the principal amount, and that repayment schedule lasts about 30 months, according to the state’s instructions to applicants.

Ann Harris, owner of Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, said talk about the program had “caught her interest,” but she was not yet sure if she would apply.

Her losses were more financial than agricultural: most of her apples came through, albeit in smaller sizes, but she had to pay higher labor costs than usual to cover hand-watering of young trees.

“The pond where our pump is went dry, so we had to get water through a secondary source and bring it in through a tractor and a tank,” she said. “It’s on the farm, but it’s way further away. It’s not near our crops.”

Franklyn Carlson, one of the owners of Carlson Orchards in Harvard, was not sure if his farm would qualify for such a loan.

“Sometimes, these programs are good, and sometimes, you’re better off to walk away from them because when you get into the details, your head starts spinning,” he said. “Right now, I’m not familiar (with the program).”

He, too, suffered some losses from the drought and may not break even for the year. But Carlson stressed his farm has plenty of quality apples and will be able to meet demand during pick-your-own season, a message that other farmers echoed.

“Are there enough apples for pick your own? Plenty,” he said. “Are there enough apples that we’re going to fill our storeroom like we did last year? Probably not … It’s a much smaller crop this year.”

Follow Chris on Twitter and Tout @ChrisLisinski.