Steady rain, gray skies pose economic hardship for farmers

ADDISON COUNTY — Nearly constant rain and cool weather has set Addison County farmers on their heels this summer.
Hay quality is down. Corn is struggling.
Many cornfields were never even planted because the ground was too wet to get tilling and planting machinery onto the land. And now in some spots acres of weeds — not corn — stand towering over the nubs of last year’s stalks.
“It’s an ugly year; that’s all,” said Rico Balzano, Agronomy Outreach Professional at the UVM Extension office in Middlebury.
For those nonfarmers wondering why, if farmers can break the ice off stock tanks in 20-below ice storms they can’t stand a little rain while tractoring, Balzano’s colleague Nate Severy said the answer is simple: “cement balls.”
That’s what farmers get if they work wet soil, he said. The very soil itself can get too compacted and the tilth (the friability, structure and composition) of the soil can be ruined.
“It’s like how you make a clay brick: You form it and then you smush it all together. This is kind of like the same thing, the same concept, but on a much larger scale,” said Severy. “If you till when it’s too wet, it all kind of clumps together. And then you drive over it, and it’s too wet, and it smushes it to make it all nice and hard.
“You keep doing that a couple of times over, and you’ve ruined your field.”
The same principles apply to hay pastures, said Weybridge dairy farmer Nate Miller. Too much machinery driving around in wet conditions and a hay field becomes compacted and rutted — thus reducing its ability to grow good hay.
As a result, Addison County farmers have had to wait between rainfalls, hoping the soil might dry out enough for them to dash out and plant corn or harvest hay.
For many, like Miller, the window of opportunity to plant corn never opened.
“As the days go by, you have to calculate, ‘Is there enough time for the corn to even grow at this point? Do I think I’ll get it in at all?’” he said.
“So the day finally came when I said, ‘That’s it. It’s not happening.’”
Last year, Miller explained, his neighbor didn’t plant corn until June 27 and got a fantastic crop. But this year about that same time, the ground was still too wet for planting.
“I think I pulled the plug on the 30th of June,” he said. “The dirt’s not even going to be ready to put this in for another week. There was ponding. Where the tillage tool went in the creases were full of water. It was just awful.’”
In all his years of farming, Miller has never had a summer in which he could not plant corn — ’til now.
Where corn has gone in, Severy said, fields are uneven and many plants are looking weak and runty because corn doesn’t like to grow in waterlogged fields. Moreover, because the weather has continued to be cloudy, corn and hay fields aren’t getting enough sun to grow the best crops.
If corn is looking straggly, hay is expected to be high-yield but low-value.
Hay for dairy cattle is typically first harvested around the last week of May, said Severy. But many farmers, like Miller, are still working on their first cut. Timing matters because the nutritional value of the hay arcs and then tapers off as the plant matures.
“As it matures, your yield increases (in weight and volume) but the quality decreases because you have a higher ratio of stem to leaves and all of your quality and all your nutritional value is in the leaves,” said Severy. “So as you have more and more stalks, you have higher levels of fiber and the hay’s nutritional value declines substantially.”
Dairy cows have high nutritional needs, so Addison County dairy farmers are already conferring with nutrition specialists to see how they can adjust their cows’ diet to maintain animal health and get adequate milk yields.
The upshot for the county’s livestock farmers will be higher feed costs.
“We’re definitely going to be watching our pennies,” said Miller, who also added that right now milk prices are down as well.
The federal website for milk prices shows that in the Middlebury area the statistical uniform price per hundredweight of fluid milk is $15.86. A decent price, said Miller, would be more in the area of $19. January saw the highest price for 2017 thus far: $17.56.)
Local hay and corn are critical to the county’s dairy economy because they are feed components that are reliably grown locally. Other grains must be trucked in from other parts of the country — an ongoing expense and fact of life for the state’s dairy farmers. Even in a good year, say the state’s agricultural economists, Vermont farmers must purchase more grain than ag businesses in many other parts of the country, and must pay a higher price for feeds from the Midwest.
Bad weather is big news given the importance of the county’s agricultural economy. Addison County is the state’s top county for all agricultural sales combined: $191 million a year. It’s the state’s top county for number of farms of all types and for acres in agriculture. And it’s also the state’s leader in milk sales — $132.1 million a year, accounting for 26.2 percent of Vermont’s annual milk sales.
Not just dairy, but all kinds of farms have been affected by the rainy, cloudy weather, said Severy. And how hard a farm has been hit also depends on highly localized variables. Factors include:
•  Soil type. Is your soil easily drainable sandy loam or waterlogging heavy clay?
•  Elevation. Are you in a flood plain or higher up?
•  Topography. Do you have poorly drained, low-laying areas or is your acreage perched on a knoll?
Overall, hardest hit seems to be farms in the flattest part of the county from Orwell toward Panton.
But local conditions vary.
Out in Shoreham, Golden Russet vegetable farmer Judy Stevens said that while the rain and gray skies have set their crops back, it hasn’t been disastrous. They’ve lost some vegetable and flower plantings, but most of their soil is well drained. Plants have been slow to take off, but she thinks they are now, finally, just about to take off.
But for New Haven’s Golden Well Apiaries, the rains have been another story entirely.
Nicole Burke said that she and husband Ryan Miller planted their four acres of CSA vegetables close to the river because that’s where there’s sandy loam, the farm’s best soil. Farther from the river and higher up, unplanted this year, is heavy clay, which is far from ideal for vegetable production.
Heavy rains pushed the New Haven River to jump its bank and flood their field. The farm lost 80 percent of what it had planted this year. That means the couple have lost basically all of their projected CSA income, Burke said. Ironically, she added, many of the plants are now bouncing back but Food and Drug Administration regulations make flooded crops off limits for both human and animal consumption.
Burke said she’s now working with the Middlebury office of the federal Farm Services Agency to see what the farm can recoup from insurance. She said that office was bustling.
“There were so many farmers in and out and everybody looking kind of distraught,” she said.
Like many other of the county’s farmers, dairy farmer Miller has been in the local FSA office to report his 30 planned acres of corn as unplantable.
Miller said he took out basic crop insurance coverage, but that any eventual payment won’t even come close to covering lost forage.
Still, said Miller, with a farmer’s weather-defying grit and pluck, “There’s always next year.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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