Wet weather leaves upstate farms soggy

GLENS FALLS – Tom Borden has been haunted lately by an old farmers’ saying his father used to quote: A dry year will scare you to death; a wet year will starve you to death.

“I’m beginning to think they were right,” said Borden, who like many farmers in the region went into this growing season with little in the way of stored feed for his dairy cows.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “I have a lot of anxieties about what this is going to do to us. We’re on the verge of something fairly disastrous here.”

Borden, like most eastern New York farmers, was counting on a good growing season to replenish feed supplies following a drought that struck much of the nation last year.

But a wet spring delayed corn planting because fields were too soggy to support heavy machines. Then, a stretch of cool temperatures stunted some of the crop during a critical growing phase. The result in many places is a yellow, stunted crop of varying heights – farmers like to see their corn “knee-high by the Fourth of July.”

Hay crops, including alfalfa, have also been affected, as farmers unable to get machines into their fields for first cuttings are finding the crops overly mature once they’re cut. That means they’ll have less nutritional value, and cows may need to have their diets supplemented with expensive, hard-to-find grain purchased from far-flung regions, Borden said.

“We got our (corn) planted, but we had so much weather damage,” he said. “We’ve got gullies in the fields we can’t drive over. It’s been so wet we can’t even get in to fix it.”

Jay Skellie, who has about 500 cows on his Salem farm, said he and his neighbors are dealing with the same pressures.

“Feed is a tight commodity in the eastern part of New York,” he said. “All the farms work as much ground as they can to feed their animals. It’s not like out in the Western states where they can take some of their grain crops and supplement their feed.”

Skellie said his farm just got the last of its corn planted Sunday – about two weeks later than usual for a final planting. He didn’t even get to an 8-acre field he usually farms because it was too wet to work, he said.

“The question is now, with the planting being that late, how well will it grow?” Skellie said. “We hope there will be a decent crop, but we know that last-planted stuff is never going to mature as it should, probably.”

There are likely to be lasting impacts from the wet weather, too. Because many farmers couldn’t get machines onto their fields, they had to forgo fertilization and weed-control efforts that may reduce the quality of later-season crops.

Some farmers used machines on their fields anyway, causing damage that’s likely to cost them down the road, Borden said.

And, while improving weather could help the corn crop, much of a season’s yield is determined early in the plant’s life cycle. Usually by this time, the number of kernels and the size of the ears has been set, according to Aaron Gabriel, a crops and soils educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

“Some corn got planted early, and because it got cold after it got planted, it didn’t do well,” Gabriel said. “Now, we have basically almost flooding conditions, and that’s bad.”

Area vegetable farmers are also struggling. Michael Kilpatrick, co-owner of Kilpatrick Family Farm in Granville, listed late blight, a disease that can wipe out whole tomato and potato crops in a matter of days, among his biggest concerns.

“We’re under a late blight warning,” he said Wednesday. “It’s hit New Jersey and is heading north.”

David Holck, director of the Farm Service Agency in Greenwich, said late blight’s impact is also likely a result of the weather pattern the area’s been seeing.

“Insects and plant diseases tend to be carried by the wind, and it seems like, when I watch the weather at night, the jet stream is dipping to the south and bringing stuff up,” Holck said. “The south-to-north pattern has a tendency to bring in pests – whether it’s late blight or bugs that are called army worms.”

Holck said he hasn’t heard any reports of army worms yet, though.

Like Borden and Skellie, Kilpatrick is expecting some lingering effects, as he’s had to plant some fields he would normally let sit fallow to improve soil conditions.

Also, he hasn’t been able to get as much planting done on “cover crops,” which are grown in fields to help soil recover from the previous year’s growth.

“We have 40 acres in cultivation, but we only plant about 10 each season,” Kilpatrick explained. “Our rotations are so messed up … we had to plant them because there was just no land left to plant on.”

As an organic farmer, Kilpatrick has also struggled with weed control. His workers use weed-pulling tools, but fields have been too wet to use them, he said.

He’s also expecting to sell some of the farm’s animals – there are some cows and dairy goats – in the fall in order to insulate his bottom line from high hay prices going into the winter.

As far as crop impact, Kilpatrick said lettuce and spinach are likely to take a hit, and the farm’s strawberry crop was down 50 percent this year. He said he’s heard from other berry farmers that they did well, though, and his own blueberry plants are falling over because they’re so laden with berries.

Raspberries are also doing well, he said.

“We’re just happy that it’s warmed up, so stuff is actually starting to grow,” Kilpatrick said.

Holck, whose agency serves Washington, Warren and Saratoga counties, said he’s submitted an application to the federal government for a disaster declaration, based on his guess that the region’s farmers are likely to suffer a 35 percent hit on their crops this year.

That program, if approved, would allow farmers to individually apply for government loans, carrying an interest rate of 2.25 percent, Holck said. That’s money most would likely use to purchase feed to get their animals through the winter.

Such loans are farmers’ best chance for assistance, since the government has done away with “ad-hoc disaster programs” that used to give farmers cash to help them deal with heavy crop losses, Holck said.