- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2003

A harsh winter and wet spring after last year’s drought-plagued growing season are leaving farmers with soggy,

flooded fields and a delayed planting and harvesting season.

“Everything is being affected. It’s a major disaster,” said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association. “Following a drought year that was so difficult for the farmers, this could really be hard for farm economics.”

The strawberry and soybean industries have been hit particularly hard, and many of Maryland’s cornfields may have to be replanted because of severe water damage, said Sue duPont, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Since January, 28.07 inches of precipitation have fallen in the Washington area, double from last year. The average level is 17.82 inches.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the rain is not expected to let up for about two more weeks.

“We’re NOAA,” meteorologist Jim Travers joked. “We’re building an ark.”

Mr. Travers said the rain should subside and move into a normal summer pattern with temperatures high enough to dry out the wet soil.

Norman Bennett, a Maryland Department of Agriculture statistician, estimated the planting to be about four to six weeks behind schedule.

Maryland farmers produced 56 million bushels of corn in 2001, making it the second-largest crop in the state. The corn industry was valued at $95 million that year.

“They’re having a tough time getting planted and even getting in the field at this time,” Ms. duPont said.

The rain means higher prices for fruits and vegetables.

Strawberry prices jumped 39 cents per pound to $2.25 at Herndon Grocery & Bakery because of the nonstop rain, said owner Angel Barela.

“All our produce prices, especially for fruit, have gone up a little bit because of the rain, but I don’t think it will continue,” he said.

Produce director Mike Patterson said he will be forced to increase some produce prices at Magruder’s supermarkets if the rain continues for the next three weeks. Lettuce has already shot up to 97 cents a head because of the rain, Mr. Patterson said.

“It’s not that bad right now, but the rain could really become a problem if it doesn’t let up soon,” he said.

Safeway also is reporting higher prices.

“Because of limited crops early on, you might see some price increase [in locally grown produce]. But as planting goes through the growing season into harvesting, the prices will come back to what you’ve normally been used to seeing,” said Craig Muckle, spokesman for Safeway’s Eastern Division.

Food Lion has absorbed the produce-price fluctuations at its grocery stores for the past month, said spokesman Jeff Lowrance. “We don’t expect to raise prices for consumers so long as the weather breaks for farmers in the near future,” he said.

Thanks to unconventional planting techniques, Reese Farms in Scottsburg, Va., near Danville, has been able to evade the flooding that has troubled other area farmers.

“We grow [our corn] on black plastic, which helps shed some of the water,” Don Reese said. “Most farmers haven’t been able to plant in the last month or so, but because of the way we grow ours, we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to plant.”

Although still behind schedule, warmer temperatures allowed Maryland’s sweet-corn farmers to get 75 percent of their crop planted last week, compared with 91 percent by this time last year. Virginia’s farmers had more luck, getting all but 10 percent of their crop in the ground.

Despite these successes, the excess moisture is beginning to turn Maryland cornfields yellow from lack of nitrogen in the soil. The corn-planting season is almost over, and some grain farmers are switching from corn to soybeans.

However, with only about three days suitable for farming last week, Maryland and Virginia farmers have been able to plant only 36 percent of their soybean crops this year, compared with 68 percent and 62 percent, respectively, at the same week last year.

The wet soil is not only proving difficult for planting and harvesting, but also for managing pests, such as slugs, and fungal diseases.

“Slugs are a problem in a wet year like this, and sometimes, they like to taste a berry here and there,” said Susan Butler of Butler’s Orchard in Germantown.

About 62 percent of Maryland’s strawberry crop has been harvested, down from 87 percent a year ago. The cool weather coupled with the added moisture has led to some rot in the fields, Ms. duPont said.

Ms. Butler said she anticipated the increased fungi and pest problems, so she used preventative treatments to ensure the crop would make it to harvesting season. The orchard’s pick-your-own strawberry crop has survived the rain.

All she needs now is people to pick the berries.

“The customers don’t want to come out in the rain, and I don’t blame them,” Ms. Butler said. “We have a beautiful crop of strawberries and sometimes the rain is keeping them away.”

Without customers, the strawberries will be left in the fields to rot. So Butler’s Orchard has started to rely on the Gleaning Network to pick the berries and distribute them to the needy. The Gleaning Network is a project of the Society of St. Andrew, which coordinates volunteers, growers and distribution agencies to salvage food for the poor.

While no crops are thriving this season, the wine-grape industry remains largely unaffected because it has a later harvesting season.

“Farmers are saying that for now, the grape quality is OK, but if the rain continues all summer, the quality could be affected,” said Elaine Lidholm, director of communications of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

James Russell of the Maryland Grape Growers Association agreed, saying that “It’s caused a little problem with fungus disease, but it’s not going to be a big problem. If it was harvest time, it’d be a bit different.”

Watermelon, apple, peach, snap-bean and cantaloupe farmers also are reporting little or no change in yields compared with a year ago.

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