Excessive rain can precipitate farming issues

6 min read
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Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter

Jamie Thistlethwaite, owner of Thistlethwaite Vineyards in Jefferson, prefers a mix of rain and sunshine.

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Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter

Jamie Thistlethwaite, owner of Thistlethwaite Vineyards, prunes vines on his Jefferson Township property.

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Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter

Jeff Conover, co-owner of Conover Organic Farm, holds soil that has washed down from a field.

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Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter

Jeff and Donna Conover, co-owners of Conover Organic Farm, check the plants in their greenhouse.

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Jeff Conover, co-owner of Conover Organic Farm, examines soil that has washed down from a field.

It rained again Friday, a steady drencher into the late morning. The drippiness, for many locals, was a dreary downer – except for a dubious silver lining.

“This is good for the farmers,” the public perception goes.

Ah, but not always. Offer that postulate to Dr. Emmanuel Omondi and he will cast a pox on your north 40. He grew up on a Kenyan farm, was educated in farming and works in farming. He is an expert who will readily tell you a surplus of rain is a bane for crops, the soil in which they grow, hay and grazing livestock.

“Too much rain is not good for crops for many reasons,” said Omondi, director of the Farming Systems Trail at Rodale Institute’s farming facility in Kutztown, eastern Pennsylvania. Rodale is a research, educational and outreach entity dedicated to the organic movement.

“It takes away soil from fields, takes nutrients that crops need,” added Omondi, who has a PhD in agronomy. “When there’s too much rain and too much water, mold and fungal materials form on plants and spread diseases to other crops.

“Crops don’t like it when it’s too wet. They are like humans – they need room to breathe. If you see water lying in a field, the crops are not happy.”

Neither are farmers, who, in Southwestern Pennsylvania, have become accustomed to waterlogged fields.

Last year was the rainiest on record in this part of the state – 57.83 inches, according to the National Weather Service’s Pittsburgh office. Now it is being followed by a soggy first quarter of 2019. Nine inches had fallen through Thursday, said Myranda Fullerton, a meteorologist at that office. The average at that juncture is 7.73.

And consider what’s immediately ahead. April showers.

Farmers from Washington and Greene counties, who were interviewed for this story, are concerned. Lost soil, lost crops and lost livestock means lost revenue.

“Our garlic crop was really down last year and we lost our (outdoor) tomatoes because of virus and blight,” said Jeff Conover, co-owner of Conover Organic Farms in Jefferson Township with his wife, Diana. “Last year was especially bad.”

The Conovers do grow some tomatoes in a greenhouse, so those weren’t lost, but their corn yield was diminished.

“The fields never really dried out. And every farm in Washington County is on a hill,” said Conover, who bought this property in 2010. “We had a drought maybe eight years ago where conditions were just the opposite, but we didn’t get hit to this extent.”

Excess rain also can adversely affect grape expectations of vineyard owners and operators. Jamie Thistlethwaite, owner of Thistlethwaite Vineyards, probably has a lot of support among his winemaking peers when he wistfully wishes his operation were in the fabled Napa Valley instead of Jefferson Township, Greene County.

“When you think of grapes, you think of Napa, where they get no rainfall to less than an inch a year. That should tell you something,” said Thistlethwaite, a fifth-generation owner of the family farm, and the first to plant grapes. His vineyard produces seven varieties of wines.

“If this were a perfect world and I bought in California, I would have a much easier time growing grapes and making wine. In Napa, you don’t have to worry about moisture, fog or dew. They irrigate there.”

He said “molds and mildews are issues for grapes. When it’s time to harvest, you don’t want a watered-down berry. You want a concentrated, sweet berry. A more concentrated berry means better aromas and flavors of wines.

“If there’s too much rain, you get a larger quantity, but the quality is not as good. When people mention a vintage year (for wines), it’s because we had perfect conditions.”

Conditions were far from perfect in 2018, Scott Simmons lamented.

“We had a pretty difficult year,” said the owner and partner of Simmons Farm in Peters Township. “I don’t think we were hit particularly hard in any one area, but all around, things were not as good volume-wise.”

He said the yields of peaches, apples and sweet corn were good, but “we struggled with pumpkins, and tomatoes and peppers encountered challenges. We had to buy pumpkins, and some of those sellers had trouble, too.”

October pumpkins and hayrides are foremost among the calling cards at Simmons Farm. Those cards, unfortunately, were losing hands this past autumn.

“Typically, September and October are two of the driest months of the year, but we got a lot of rain,” Simmons said. “What impacted us more than anything was we rely a lot on hayrides and pumpkins in October, and we were rained out on a lot of weekends.”

Crops are not a prominent element at Kern Farms. Eggs, poultry and pork are the main products of the 80-acre operation in Eighty Four. But Kevin Kern, co-owner with his wife, Nicole, said they experienced “a big financial setback” in 2018.

“We average 125 bushels of corn per acre, but that’s cut back to 30 to 50 bushels when (it rains like this),” said Kern, who grew up on a produce farm in Venetia. “That’s a huge loss, and you lose feed for livestock.”

He said he and his spouse “pasture raise” chickens from when they are very young, “and they don’t do so well with rain, which leads to tons of problems – slower weight gain, not being as big, developing health issues.”

“We are happier when it’s drier. It’s hard to work when it’s wet and cold and windy. And it’s more stressful for the animals.”

Beth Smith is well aware of the adverse effects wet weather has on livestock. She and her husband, Oren, own Oak Hill Farm in Avella, where they produce Angus beef.

“Livestock can get hoof rot when there’s too much rain,” she said. “Crops don’t grow right, the cost of feed goes up. The quality of hay is questionable. When hay gets wet, it stays wet and bacteria forms.”

The importance of quality, and sufficient quantity, of hay was borne out locally and in the Midwest in recent weeks, when a Canton Township couple, David and Bri Beechy, and their 9-month-old daughter, Magdalena, twice transported loads of donated hay to Nebraska. Flooding at a number of farms there left livestock severely short of feed.

So, no, this excess rain is not good for farmers.

“A lack of water is bad,” Rodale’s Omondi said, “but so is too much rain.”


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