Soggy spring stymies sowing of seeds

ADDISON COUNTY — Months of unfavorable weather have put a damper on spring planting around the county.
“It’s pretty miserable,” said Jeff Carter, an agronomy specialist with UVM Extension in Middlebury. “It was a harsh winter, which killed various hay crops, including alfalfa and orchard grass. Now the cool wet spring is causing damage.”
Corn crops have been delayed by three weeks, he said.
“Not 20 percent of them have been planted yet,” he said early this week.
From May 2018 to April 2019 the contiguous United States suffered the wettest yearlong period since recordkeeping began in 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Environmental Information.
Eight states, all of them east of the Mississippi River, had record wet years, according to the same report, and severe flooding in the Midwest has been a catastrophe for farmers there.
In Vermont, that same 12-month period produced only “above average” precipitation. April 2019, however, was far more soggy than usual.
For county dairy farmers, poor hay and corn yields with lower nutritional value mean two things: reduced animal productivity and higher feed costs brought on by having to purchase grains.
Coupled with depressed milk prices — the April 30 price per hundredweight of $17.70 falls below the break-even point for many operations — this could spell further trouble for the state’s dairy industry.
“This year has been a challenge with heavy rains this spring,” wrote Chanin Hill of Four Hills Farm in Bristol, in a recent social media post. Though Four Hills strives to use cover crops and a no-till system, she explained, the Hills had to till under the cover crops this year — to get the soil fertilized in a timely manner and to prevent phosphorus and nitrogen runoff.
When it gets to be early to mid-June in a season like this, farmers need to start deciding whether to plant or call it a disaster and look for crop insurance, Carter said.
But, he added, “things turn around on a dime,” and next week’s weather is looking very good.
OVERFLOWS STRETCHED FROM Otter Creek across farm fields nearly to Shard Villa Road in Salisbury during mid-April. A soggier than normal spring has affected dairy farmers and all agricultural producers. Photo by Jeanne Montross
Sam Lester of Lester Farm & Market in New Haven hopes that’s true.
“We need a week of sunshine and a nice breeze to dry things out,” he said. “I usually get into the field to plant vegetables by April 15, but this year it was May 15. I still have some fields I can’t work because they’re too wet.”
He did manage to get some tomatoes and peppers planted, he said, but because of the inhospitable weather, “they’re just sitting there.”
All in all he figures he’s about three weeks behind.
“What we should be harvesting in July we’ll end up doing in August,” he said. “It’s going to be a late season this year. If the fall is also cold and wet, it’s going to be a short season.”
At the end of May, with the rain pouring down, Rye Matthews of Northeast Hemp Commodities paid a visit to Jon Satz of Wood’s Market Garden in Brandon to check on 50,000 hemp seedlings he’s soon hoping to plant on a farm in North Ferrisburgh.
“We can’t work the fields, yet,” Matthews said. “It’s too wet.”
Another 200,000 hemp seedlings sat in Satz’s greenhouses, reserved for a number of registered growers who for the time being had nowhere to plant them.
Wood’s Market Garden also grows and sells more than 50 varieties of organic produce.
“It’s been challenging getting the veggies in the ground, even in the sandy areas,” Satz said. “The fields are like Swiss cheese.”
According to state officials, average annual precipitation in the state has increased by 1.5 inches per decade since 1960, and such conditions as farmers are now experiencing are likely to become more frequent in the future — one of the many effects of human-caused climate disruption.
Other effects, elaborated at climatechange.vermont.gov, include rising high and low temperatures, rising average temperatures, more intense storms, less snow cover and shorter winters.
Addison County’s last damaging soggy spring occurred just two years ago, in 2017. Ironically, the state had just experienced the longest duration of drought — 45 weeks from June 2016 to April 2017 — this century, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.
In response to such weather extremes, many farmers around the state have begun exploring ways to become more “climate resilient.”
But while this particular spring has frustrated Vermont agriculture, it’s not likely to end up in any record books, and Carter didn’t think farmers were hitting the panic button yet.
“They’re rolling with the punches,” he said.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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