Sunday, December 28, 2014

Heavy rains, lack of sun hamstring crops

John Ebert, co-owner of Springdale Farms in Cherry Hill, near his corn fields in his 1957 pickup. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
John Ebert, co-owner of Springdale Farms in Cherry Hill, near his corn fields in his 1957 pickup. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
John Ebert, co-owner of Springdale Farms in Cherry Hill, near his corn fields in his 1957 pickup. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer) Gallery: Heavy rains, lack of sun hamstring crops

By now, John Ebert should see neat rows of cornstalks rising at least five feet over his sprawling Cherry Hill fields. He should be getting ready for the first harvest in a few days.

But this season, the corn at Springdale Farms will be a little late. The crop now stands only about four feet and probably won't be picked until the second week of this month.

"Too much rain and not enough sunlight," said Ebert, co-owner of the farm.

Across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, June's persistent precipitation has left fields muddy and prevented many farmers from planting their crops on time. It washed away expensive fertilizer and saturated the ground, leaving portions of some farms unusable for weeks.

That means corn, field-grown tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and other crops are likely to show up a couple of weeks later than usual at markets and other retail sites. And some local supplies might be spotty because the weather has thrown off the sequence of plantings and harvests.

The farmers' problems might also lead to higher prices, but consumers shouldn't see any great difference in availability because of the abundance of produce on the East Coast, agricultural experts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania said.

"It's been a rough patch for farmers, no doubt, but the weather conditions will change," said Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, a nonprofit trade association representing 13,000 members, including 7,000 full- and part-time farmers. "If you're not resourceful, you don't survive.

"Farmers are accustomed to having stressful growing conditions at least sometime during each growing season, whether it's a freeze, hail, or drought."

In the end, consumers will "still get the corn, peaches, and tomatoes," Furey added. "One farmer's production problem is another farmer's opportunity."

Last month, Philadelphia International Airport recorded 17 days of measurable rainfall and three days of trace amounts. Officially, there wasn't a single clear day. June normally has 10 days of measurable precipitation.

The amount of rain has varied widely across the region, with some counties receiving downpours while others nearby received a light, passing shower. "I'd rather have drier weather," said Ebert, of Springdale Farms. "You can irrigate land - but you can't pump the water off."

In Pennsylvania, the farmers growing corn, hay, and alfalfa have faced "the biggest problems" from the string of rainy, cloudy days, said Mark O'Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, a trade association representing more than 44,000 farm and rural families.

"Some farmers were delayed several weeks in their planting of corn, while others were delayed even further, planting in the middle of June," he said late last month. "Still others have been planting corn this week, and others still haven't planted any corn.

"Corn that has been planted so far is not as mature as it should be at this time of year. Most farmers will end up harvesting their corn with a lower yield due to weather delays."

O'Neill said one farmer he had talked to "indicated there were small areas on his farm that were so saturated that he won't be able to grow corn there this summer."

The news has also been bad for many Pennsylvania farmers who grow hay and alfalfa.

"The wet weather has seriously hindered the farmers' ability to get into the field to chop and bale hay and alfalfa," O'Neill said. "They will have fewer crops to sell or use to feed their animals. This will negatively impact the farmers' bottom line."

The rain also generated a bumper crop of fungal rot that affected some of the strawberry crop, which finished earlier this year partly because of the rot and rain.

New Jersey has had similar problems.

"We're at a critical time," New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher said. "We've already seen severe damage to hay and grain crops. There also has been some difficulty with timing of planting. Everything is coming on later.

"We are still seeing a lot of good-quality fruits and vegetables. Some, such as blueberries, are at their peak and look good so far. We are hopeful that with some good luck, we can still have a great growing season ahead."

In Burlington County, the unseasonably cool spring and early-summer weather was good for lettuce, spinach, and beets, said Raymond Samulis, agricultural agent of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service of Burlington County.

But the lower temperatures, rain, and clouds have presented problems for warm-season crops such as corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and soybeans. "They're slower in their growth cycles than they should be," Samulis said. "They need sunlight to grow. The cooler weather also slows the growth.

"Tomatoes like it warm, and some look like they've hardly grown at all. The peppers and eggplants are doing fair, but there will be less of them."

Most crops have been affected in some way - if only slightly. Some blueberries have not been as flavorful because of the rainy weather, agriculture experts said.

Pumpkin crops might also be affected; they should have been planted by now, but many farmers have not been able to get them in. If they go in late, the vines could be vulnerable to an early September frost.

Making matters worse for New Jersey and Pennsylvania farmers this season is the costly loss of fertilizer, which has been driven deep into the ground, away from the roots.

"Fertilizer is extremely expensive," Samulis said. "You put it on, it rains for a month, and it's lost. A lot of farmers will put more down, but it's too wet right now.

"We need an anti-rain dance."

The ground takes as much as four to 10 days to dry out, depending on the kind of soil. "For some farmers, this [weather] has been a disaster; for others, it will mean economic losses," Samulis added.

Farmers "can have losses and higher costs, but it can even out," Furey said. "I'm not predicting a negative outcome. It's too soon. Growers will land on their feet."


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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