Dry weather lets farmers get in fields

ADDISON COUNTY — The warm, dry weather this spring is unusual, but to some farmers it’s come as a welcome change from last year.
According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, precipitation totals at the Burlington weather station are running about 3.3 inches below average, at just over 7 inches since Jan. 1. Vermont also saw record high temperatures in March. With little precipitation and very little snowmelt, the fields and forests are unusually dry.
“Everybody I’ve talked to is about five weeks ahead of where they were last year,” said Jeremy Gildrien of Gildrien Farm, which recently moved to Leicester. “There wasn’t that big spring melt, so we’ve been getting the fields plowed.”
Jessica Neiles, a meteorologist at NOAA’s Burlington office, said cycles of wet and dry weather are normal occurrences, just like cycles of hot and cold weather. This year, she said, has been especially dry: Red flag warnings are issued when the fire risk is high due to dry, windy weather, and there have been four so far this year. The office usually issues two red flag warnings per year — last year, there were none. And Neiles said those warnings began earlier than usual this year. Red flag warnings tend to occur in April and May, after snowmelt but before the height of the growing season.
The unusually dry weather comes just on the heels of a record-breaking year for precipitation. 2011 saw farmers struggling with fields too muddy to plow and late crop plantings. By mid-April last year, the total rainfall was at about 10.2 inches.
The dry weather this year meant the state was able to lift the manure spreading ban — in place to prevent manure from washing into waterways during the spring thaw — more than a week early, on March 21.
Andrea Ochs, president of the Addison County Farm Bureau, said the dry weather has actually been a boon for some farmers, but that the ideal planting weather might be a little too tempting for some.
“It’s still kind of early for planting,” she said. “I’m hopeful that we won’t have any frost.”
The downside of the dry weather comes later, though. Seeds need water to germinate, and Gildrien said those without an irrigation system could have some difficulty. Ochs said the apples at her family’s Orwell operation, Crescent Orchards, will need rain by August to produce a good harvest, but other crops will need rain earlier.
Those who grow hay may see it grow with very little water, she said, but it will contain fewer nutrients.
Still, Gildrien said it’s easier to water fields when they’re too dry than to dry them off when they’re too wet.
The NOAA Climate Prediction Center forecasts continued dry weather eight  to 14 days out, but normal precipitation levels thereafter.
And, all in all, it’s still early to make any assumptions about the growing season. For now, farmers are moving into the growing season with one eye on the weather.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Ochs.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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