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Wet weather takes toll on crops

  • Greenfield farmer Michael Butynski lost 80 percent of this field of Amber Cup Squash that suffered from recent wet weather.   Recorder/Paul Franz

    Greenfield farmer Michael Butynski lost 80 percent of this field of Amber Cup Squash that suffered from recent wet weather. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mold is visible on the leaves of this squash plant in Greenfield.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Mold is visible on the leaves of this squash plant in Greenfield. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

  • Greenfield farmer Michael Butynski lost 80 percent of this field of Amber Cup Squash that suffered from recent wet weather.   Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Mold is visible on the leaves of this squash plant in Greenfield.  Recorder/Paul Franz

Area farmers are once again on the front lines of weather patterns, which in recent weeks have brought cooler, rainier weather to the region.

That’s translated into problems for some growers of potatoes and tomatoes as well as for those growing vine crops like pumpkins and squash, says University of Massachusetts Extension vegetable specialist Ruth Hazzard.

Another problem has been generally cooler temperatures, with overnight dew that have fostered late blight.

Still, Hazzard says diseases — especially late blight and phytophora capsici — worsened by summer’s intense rainstorms like last week’s heavy rains, “are not very widespread at this point,” and adds, “In general, it’s been a pretty good growing year.”

Yet Hazzard said, “We’re steadily seeing more diseases,” especially late blight, a fungus-like organism that occurred earlier in the growing season than is typical because of a relatively large number of heavy rains. Blight, which affects tomato and potato crops, has shown up somewhere in the area every year since a heavy 2009 outbreak, and is worsened by the kinds of cool, rainy conditions that have been prevalent in recent years.

So far in this three-month period, the area has seen nearly 18½ inches of rain, compared to 15.65 inches in the same period last year and 10 inches in the 2012. Much of that rain has come in episodic, heavy rainfalls, such as a 3½-inch rainfall last week and a similar deluge on June 26.

Some growers of pumpkins, squash, melons and other vine crops have also seen a worsening this summer of phytophora capsici, a soil-borne disease that can “sort of swim short distances” in pools of rain to spread across a field and remains in the soil for years.

“The spores are very long-lasting, and even after five, six, seven years, there’s a risk the disease will explode again,” she said. “How many hurricanes will hit us before about Sept. 15 will make a big difference,” she said.

“Disease pressure has changed in many crops,” said Hazzard, adding that the problems seem related to movement into new areas because of “favorable conditions” like frequent heavy rains in recent years. There are also new strains of light blight in this country and new ways it’s been spread, including infected plants sold by some chain stores, plus a larger number of small farms with reluctance of some farmers to use new chemical compounds to manage their crops.

“When we get heavy rains that saturate the soil and it stays wet for a couple of days after, that’s the kind of conditions that trigger some soil-borne diseases that have been so hard on pumpkin and squash crops in the past 10 years,” she said, adding that peppers are also affected. “It’s gotten more difficult.”

But even when you’re dealing with phytopthora, which means “plant destroyer” and remains in the soil for years, Hazzard says there are many farms in different parts of the region that are not affected.

“It’s easy to exaggerate the impact, and growers are doing everything they can,” from careful soil tillage practices to being selective in which fields they plant. When it comes to late blight, meticulously getting rid of potentially diseased plant material — the only way it can over-winter — is critical.

Overall, Hazzard said, the season has been a good one, especially for crops like sweet corn, although those crops have generally been late by about a week.

“There was a slow start to the season but it was a roller coaster start, slow and steady,” she said. “The squash and pumpkin crop is great, but there are always certain conditions that put it at risk.”

One bright spot this summer is the spotted-winged drosophila, a fruit fly that began infesting blueberry and raspberry crops two years ago.

The problem this year “is not building up as fast as it has last two years,” Hazzard said. “That’s a blessing. Every week without pressure on the crop is huge.”

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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