Tom Gordon heads up the Soil & Water Conservation Program for Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry. With this year’s serious lack of rain having a widespread impact on farmers, Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Whitcomb asked him to join the task force tracking the drought. We called him up to talk about his new responsibilities (and old).

DEEP BACKGROUND: Gordon grew up in Skowhegan and attended Colby College, where he earned a degree in environmental studies. He went right to work at the Cobbossee Watershed District. That was the 1970s and one issue he dealt with regularly was the impact of farm runoff on the watershed, namely, how to manage it to prevent or at least diminish water pollution and algae blooms stemming from farm activities. (Better manure storage facilities helped.) “That was really my first intensive interaction with farmers.”

He stayed there 19 years as executive director before deciding to step away to pursue another interest.

AND THAT WAS? “Doing concert sound for acoustic and blues bands.” Really? Yep. He bought an audio visual business in Portland.

DROP SOME NAMES: Who did he make sound better? Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Jonathan Edwards and Odetta Holmes, to name a few: “Most of my heroes from the ’60s,” Gordon said. “My most consistent client has been Dave Mallett.” It was a “good break” from his environmental work, but he got sucked back in when the Cumberland County Soil and Conservation District came calling. “I chatted with them and before you knew it, I was on the board of supervisors for the district.” (He still is.)

He also had a part-time gig as the executive director of the Maine Association of Conservation Districts. In 2014 he started doing part-time work for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry, and now he’s “pretty much full time.” He still does sound system work on the weekends, though.


GETTING THE GIG: The Department of Agriculture has sent multiple staffers to the task force, including the state’s geologist, Robert Marvinney. Gordon got drawn in after he made a suggestion. Which was? “That we really should be keeping track of any calls we get from farmers,” Gordon said. “People said, ‘That is a good idea, we’ll send them to you.’ ”

ONE RINGY DINGY: Farmers have been calling. A lot. “Primarily what we are hearing about is dry wells or extremely low farm ponds, and that is affecting farmers’ ability to get water to their cattle and also to irrigate crops.” The worst problem? “The impact on the hay crop. Normally they wouldn’t irrigate, they’d just rely on the rain to take care of that.” But without rain, there’s been a serious problem with that second cut of hay, the one that everyone with livestock needs to get through the winter. The hay has “been either extremely poor or not even worth cutting.”

HELP ME: Short of doing a rain dance, what can the department do to help? In the instances of small farms, it could connect the farmer to local emergency management staffers. In the case of a woman in Oxford County whose four horses were in trouble after her supply of water dried up, it meant sending the fire department out with a tanker truck.

On a broader level, the department helps farmers secure federal assistance through the Farm Services Agency (part of the USDA). Whether Gordon is with the task force or attending Agricultural Council of Maine (AGCOM) monthly meetings, the drought has been the talk of the state.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE: We’ve actually been in the drought for a while; that nice easy winter we all enjoyed last year should have been making us all nervous for the summer to come. “The hydrologists were saying that there have been signs of this building for the last two or three years.” And the drought could last another couple of years. What matters now are some good fall rains, before a hard frost. “Once that ground is frozen, a lot of that water would run off.”

PLANNING FOR THE WORST: Gordon is trying to get the message out that farmers need to prepare for the possibility of a long-term drought, perhaps giving serious consideration to examining the efficiency of their irrigation systems (go with the drip, Gordon urges) or digging a deeper well. Now. “Because once you are in the middle of a growing season, it is too late to do anything.”

Anyone considering adding a farm pond should be sure to check with their local conservation district first. “It may be tempting to dig into a very wet area on a farm, but if that is wetland, you could run into some environmental regulation problems.”

SOIL SAVVY: The final piece of the preparedness puzzle is looking at soil health. “They should be looking at no-till cover crops to try to get more organic matter into the soil; that tends to increase the capacity of the soil to hold water.” Does that mean organic farms have a leg up on coping with the drought? “I don’t distinguish between conventional and organic. Good soil health can be done by conventional farmers as well. You can be adding organic material, but more isn’t always better. You really have to get to know your soils pretty well.”

Aren’t Maine farmers already savvy about soil? “We forget that there is a new generation of farmers who might not have had the time or opportunity to learn about soil health.”

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