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Farmers put in economic peril by soggy fields

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WORK ALONG A sharp curve on Route 125 in Ripton continues Tuesday morning as crews repair damage done by the Aug. 6 flooding.<br /> Independent photo/Trent Campbell

By JOHN S. McCRIGHT

ADDISON COUNTY — After suffering through an unusually wet summer area farmers have one eye on the skies and one eye on the calendar. If fields don’t dry out soon, many fear they will loose much of the feed they will need to keep their livestock productive this winter.

“This  is going to be a critical time in the next three weeks,” said Craig Miner, executive director for USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) in Addison County. “We could have problems similar to 2006 if we don’t have extensive dry weather.

“The crops have defiantly been hurt by the rain.”

Lousy weather, beyond ruining picnics and vacations, means a lot in a county that is one of the largest dairy producers in Vermont. That is particularly true when wet conditions threaten the economic livelihoods of a large segment of the local businesses.

Farmers say their businesses have already been hurt, and the pain could get even worse.

“The hay we have standing has no feed value,” said Steve Getz, owner of Dancing Cow Farm in Bridport. “We’re crossing our fingers that we’ll get a good second cut (of hay) or we’ll be buying feed this winter.”

Getz believes he can buy forage from Canadian suppliers if it comes to that. “It’s good hay but it’s expensive,” he said.

The fact that diesel fuel prices are much higher this year than last only makes the expense of trucking in extra feed that much more costly.

The rains have presented several problems for those involved in agriculture. The nearly daily occurrence of rain in the last few weeks — the Champlain Valley is running ahead of the pace to set a record for annual rainfall (see story, Page 1A) — means that soils have become supersaturated. That has caused some pasture grasses to get knocked down and turn yellow with root rot. Those that are still standing have a much lower nutrient value because they haven’t got the amount of sun they would get in a normal year.

Corn plants are similarly suffering, though it is too early to write off the crop.

“We need the heat of the sun to get the corn to mature, to get protein into the ears,” said Bill Scott, president of the Addison County Farm Bureau.

But even if the hay was worth cutting, most farmers can’t get on the land because their large machinery would sink in the mud. That would not only incur costs to retrieve the tractor or wagon, but also possibly ruin the field itself.

“The fields are so wet you can hardly walk in them, you don’t see anyone in the field,” said Jake Gosliga at Sunset Farm in Addison.

Gosliga said his crew got the first cut of hay in and enough hay in the second cut for his milkers, though he wants to get more for his heifers.

Another matter of growing concern is the level of muck in farmers’ manure pits. While no problems have yet been reported, no one has been able to spread manure on their pastures for weeks simply because they couldn’t get spreaders into the fields, or they couldn’t cut the grass in the first place to make way for the manure.

Some pointed out that if a manure pond overflows it not only creates a mess, it puts the farmer in violation of environmental laws.

Miner is confident that once the incessant rains stop and fields dry out a bit then most will have time to empty their manure pits before Dec. 1, after which manure spreading is banned for the winter.

“There’s probably still time to get the manure out,” he said.

For some farmers fears about whether they will get crops in the barn in the future are pushed aside by current worries about the health of their animals. Moist and muggy conditions in the fields and barns has increased the threat from viruses and bacteria, which thrive in this atmosphere.

And cows, sheep and horses could be weakened by the extra effort required to move around in fields deep with heavy mud.

“It tires me out to walk through this muck. Think how a thousand-pound animal feels walking through it,” Getz said.

He said his cows come in from the field with teats covered in wet clay, meaning he has to take extra time to wash each one. He noticed higher somatic cell counts in two of his 20 milking cows, and when tests showed they had been sickened by higher than normal amounts of bacteria he had to get rid of the animals.

As if higher than normal amounts of rain aren’t enough, strong winds and occasional hail in scattered parts of the county have also shredded some crops.

While Getz said cheese production will be down at Dancing Cow, which makes its money producing artisanal cheese, he said his business model softens the financial impact of the bad weather, but dairy farmers who just sell fluid milk will suffer the full brunt of higher feed costs.

“Thank goodness we’re in a value-added business, and not in a high-production business,” he said.

Milk prices have been substantially higher this summer than they were in the summer of 2006, when a very wet spring combined with high fuel prices and record-low milk prices — as low as $13 per hundredweight — to create a world of hurt for the dairy industry. State government provided some relief that year.

Fluid milk prices are running between $18 and $20 per hundredweight now and the new federal Farm Bill passed by Congress this year over the veto of President Bush provides some new programs. Whether that price or those programs will be high enough to stave off disaster if the rains don’t stop is an open question.

“It’s important for farmers to put their crop reports in” with the FSA, in order to qualify for existing and new aid programs, Gosliga pointed out. “If you don’t have crop insurance they won’t help you.”

While prayer is mentioned as another source of aid, all agree that time is the one thing that will save this season from turning into a feed disaster. Several weeks of dry, breezy weather is needed to make the sodden clay fields dry enough to get the corn crop in. Harvesting of that grain usually starts in the early part of September.

While the rainy May and June of 2006 is a benchmark for some when it comes to wet summers, all observers agree that farmers face a particularly daunting prospect this year.

“It’s not unusual to get some big, heavy rainstorms in the summer and things get wet, it’s just the length of time it’s been going on,” Miner said. “I can’t say I’ve see a time when we’ve had this long a period of wet weather.”

Gosliga agrees.

“This is about the wettest year, it’s a bad one,” he said. “It’s such a tough year.”

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