County farmers struggle with endless rain

ADDISON COUNTY — The almost daily occurrence of torrential downpours that many have grown accustomed to over the past several weeks has done worse than dampen the spirits of those who hoped for a sunny summer.
The rain is wreaking havoc on area feed growers by delaying the cutting of the second hay crop, preventing corn planting, and preventing existing crops from having proper nutrients due to flooding and the inability to spread manure, says Jeff Carter, agronomy specialist at UVM Extension in Middlebury.
“The bottom line is that there’s a concern about feeding livestock for a year to come,” Carter said. “If you have too mature a hay crop and a poor corn crop, it does not bode well for winter.”
Carter said the growing season got off to a good start this spring. Most farmers made the first cut of hay and had begun planting corn by mid-May.
Then the deluge of rain came.
“It has fairly stopped operations,” said Carter, who estimated that 20 percent of the corn crop did not get planted this year, and that the corn crop’s overall loss could be 25 to 50 percent by the end of the year.
“If that happens, it has an impact for the whole next year,” he said.
If feed crops are not grown locally, they must be purchased from growers in the Midwest. Though the price of grain looks like it is going down in the next several months, according to Carter, “that could change with one big storm.”
But the crops’ fate is not yet set in stone. Carter believes that even a few days of good weather would have a marked improvement in plant growth, and enable farmers to spread the fields and cut the hay crop. There are also emergency crops that farmers could consider planting, like millet or sudex, he said.
Carter said that most are in an understandably foul mood.
“We are talking to farmers every day, and they are anxious and concerned,” he said.
Peter James of Monument Farms in Weybridge characterized the situation as “pretty bleak.”
Monument Farms had its corn planted in a very timely manner this year, James said, and their hay crop was also looking good.
“But once the rain came it wouldn’t quit,” James said. “The nutrients we put on have pretty much leached out of the soil.”
Though he said it was hard to estimate the damages, he ball-parked the loss of corn at 30 to 40 percent and said that the hay crop was now far too tall to be cut.
James added that it was getting to the point where it was too late to put nitrogen or other nutrients into the soil and have them properly absorbed by the plants — and it would take three or four days of good weather just to be able to get in the fields with heavy machinery.
Ted Foster at the Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury said the corn is struggling and hay is sitting in the fields longer because of the rainy weather.
The wet fields mean that there is too much water in the soil, which then becomes packed down so no oxygen can get through to the corn plants’ roots. The ground is too wet for farmers to take a tractor through and turn up the soil, which would loosen it up and allow the roots to breathe better.
Foster said his corn is uneven.
“A lot of it should be taller than it is,” he said.
Although the rain has leached the nutrients out of the soil, Foster said the ground is too wet for farmers to get into their fields to apply fertilizer.
“We need sunshine and a breeze,” Foster said, “for at least a week.”
The hay crop has also suffered. Foster said that normally he cuts hay in a field about every five weeks — every four weeks in a good year — but this year he started cutting hay on May 20 and now, seven weeks later, he hasn’t even finished his second cut. That’s a problem because after a certain point the protein level in the hay decreases and the fiber content increases, which means less milk.
It’s not just the fact that the plants are wet that is slowing down haying, it is also that the soggy ground doesn’t allow them to bring the big trucks into the fields to pick up hay once it is cut. Nevertheless, Foster said they are cutting some of it wet and putting it up that way anyway.
“If it’s wetter it can run more (liquid nutrients will leak out of the stored hay),” he said. “It’s better to put it up wet than not at all … If we don’t get it (cut) we can’t feed the cows.”
The cows are being fed now on hay and grain stored from last year. But the hay and corn crop will affect the price of keeping cows in the coming months. With expected yields down, Foster predicts that the price of corn and hay will rise. The wet weather in much of the Midwest will only make supplies of hay and grain even tighter, he said.
Over in Shoreham, Judy Stevens of Golden Russet Farm said that for vegetable growers like herself, the season has been more of a mixed bag.
“It’s mostly throwing things off for seeding and rotation,” Stevens said. “It’s been hard to get out there to do tractor work and get things seeded.”
Luckily, the rains came late this year after most early transplants were already in the ground, though direct seeding has certainly been affected.
But there is always a silver lining.
“As frustrating as it is, we haven’t lost any crops from washouts as in the previous two years,” Stevens said. “We haven’t had to irrigate. And the plants are growing fairly well between the heat and the moisture — including the weeds!”

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