Wet weather threatens Pioneer Valley crops
Rain splashes mud on strawberries Thursday at Town Farm in Northampton.
Rain splashes mud on strawberries Thursday at Town Farm in Northampton.
Workers pull weeds in the rain Thursday morning at Town Farm in Northampton.
Anne Preston pulls weeds at Town Farm in Northampton Thursday morning during the rain.
Andrew Byler pulls weeds at Town Farm in Northampton Thursday morning during the rain.
On June 1, the sun beat down on the valley, temperatures soared into the 90s, and residents got out their summer gear and beach umbrellas. But since then, they’ve traded them in for actual umbrellas.
So far in the month of June, the area has received 6.5 inches of rain, according to Greenfield weather records maintained by The Recorder.
The excessive rain no doubt put a damper on all manner of traditional June activities from graduation parties to backyard cookouts, but no one is hoping for nicer weather more than Pioneer Valley farmers.
“The rains kept coming and coming and coming,” said Whately farmer James Pasiecnik, who said about 10 percent of his potato crop had already been lost to saturated fields. “They wouldn’t let fields dry out and absorb. Now it’s starting to dry out. I hope we don’t get more rain tonight.”
It’s too late to replant the lost potatoes, which he said are in lower spots in fields in Sunderland, South Deerfield and Whately. But he said, “If it stops raining, we should be in good shape.”
But as Pasiecnik spoke Monday afternoon, forecasts were for thunderstorms Monday evening and night, with showers likely today.
“It’s drowned out the potatoes,” he said, “because they can’t take a lot of water. The strawberries are doing excellent because it’s on ‘lighter’ land.”
With drier weather over the weekend, area pick-your-own berry operations were also able to attract customers.
At Nourse Farm in Whately, co-owner Nathan Nourse said the farm’s pick-your-own strawberry fields were also open to pickers over the weekend, and he was pleased with the crop.
“All berries thrive best in conditions when the temperature is less than 80 degrees,” he said. They may be a day or two later than usual, he said, but at least the berries weren’t “cooked” by hot weather.
The key is keeping standing water from affecting the plants, he said, either by using fields with soil that drains well or by building raised beds to promote drainage.
“There are a lot of things you can do,” he said. “It’s one of the highest value crops grown in the valley, so you do it right.”
Rainy days aren’t good for attracting pick-your-own customers, he said, but he thinks that sunny days are ahead after looking at the long-range forecast for the rest of the month.
The U.S. Geological Service reported on its website Monday afternoon that river flow in all of Franklin County was way above normal for this time of year.
Michael Antonellis, of Antonellis Agricultural Services in Deerfield, said that by this time most years he has finished the first round of hay-cutting on all his fields. That’s usually about 4,500 bales of hay that he will sell to area farmers.
This year is a different story. “I got one cutting in mid May and got a couple hundred bales, but ever since then we haven’t had a break in the weather to do more,” he said Thursday.
A farmer needs at least three dry days in a row to cut, dry and bale hay, and there hasn’t been a stretch of three rain-free days since May 16 to 18. Plus, the fields are too wet for Antonellis to drive his harvesting equipment on.
Valley livestock farmers who cut hay are in the same boat. For some, the hay they cut last summer is running out and they can’t harvest more to feed their animals when they’re not out to pasture. “I’ve gotten calls from farmers looking for hay already,” he said. “They were running low or were out.”
A lot of the grass in his fields is overripe, too, which means the quality “isn’t what it should be,” he said. “The nutrient value is down and it will be coarser.”
The delay in cutting may also mean Antonellis isn’t able to fit three rounds of hay-harvesting into the season, as he usually does. “It’s really up in the air,” he said.
Other farmers are also monitoring the weather.
“We’re hoping for sunshine, hoping for the best,” said Frank Ciesluk of Ciesluk Farm in Deerfield. “It’s been a while.”
It’s still early in the growing season and farmers may get their wish soon, but the skies aren’t completely clear yet. The National Weather Service predicts a partly cloudy day Saturday followed by a chance of storms Sunday. The beginning of the week will have more sunny skies, but still a chance of showers.
The impact of unusually wet, cool and cloudy June days so far varies widely depending on the crop, the soil drainage of a particular field and a host of other factors. For example, farmers with low-lying fields are likely to lose some crops where standing water puddles up. Farmers planning to harvest hay or plant with tractors over the past few weeks had to postpone because they can’t drive in their soggy fields.
On the other hand, crops like peas and berries are thriving, farmers said. Strawberries that have been kept well drained are juicy and ready for picking.
“Some things are happy, the onions and garlic are happy, and the peas like cooler weather,” said Oona Coy, co-owner of Town Farm in Northampton. “But the prolonged rain is starting to prevent us from getting into the fields to do the work we need to do.”
In interviews last week, valley farmers lamented lost crops briefly but were upbeat, saying it is still early in the growing season and sunny days could be just around the corner.
But when Mother Nature is involved, anything is possible.
“Things could turn around and we could have a drought in July,” Coy said. “It’s not unusual in these days of changing climates.”
Coy said workers at her Ventures Field Road farm managed to plant carrots, beets and cilantro last week before the rain started in earnest.
But if it gets much wetter, they won’t be able to drive the tractor on the fields to till or otherwise prepare the beds for planting. “It hasn’t quite reached that point yet,” she said.
She called it a “back-and-forth season” that may mean some crops are later than usual. “We had crazy heat with 90 degree weather, that sped things up, and then last week’s weather slowed things down,” she said. “Hot spells followed by cool temperatures are hard on heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers.”
Sweet corn is the most important crop at Ciesluk Farm, and Ciesluk said that while most of his 100-acre crop is doing fine, he will lose a little due to standing water in his fields in the meadowlands in Deerfield. “If water is sitting there for more than three days on any crop, it usually dies,” he said.
If it gets some hot, sunny weather soon, he said, the corn will be for sale at the Greenfield Road farmstand by mid July, about two weeks later than usual.
Ciesluk’s farmland near the Deerfield River is very fertile, but it means an added risk during wet weather. The river has flooded its banks, he said, wiping out about 15 acres of potatoes he had planted, along with those of his neighbor.
“There’s quite a bit of damage being done there,” he said. “Hopefully the sun comes out and the river goes down soon.”
Barbara Troy, who operates Running Fox Farm on leased farmland on Thrasher Hill Road in Worthington, said her 1,600 blueberry bushes are “quite happy” with the wet, cool weather and blueberries will be available within a month.
“They will be abundant,” she said. “It’ll be a little late, because there hasn’t been enough sun for them to ripen, but we hope to have them by July 15.”
Unfortunately, the wet weather means she will not be able plant or harvest as much of other crops as she had intended before she has to leave the farm in July. A new owner bought the land.
“It’s too late to plant now,” she said. “We did plant a few things, herbs and potatoes, but you can’t walk to where they are without sinking calf-deep in mud.