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For Pa. farmers, year of record rain often a 'big nuisance'

Written by David Wenner/PennLive | Jun 20, 2019 5:46 AM
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This May 29, 2019, file photo shows a farm outside Morgantown, Pa. On Tuesday, June 11, the Labor Department reports on U.S. producer price inflation in May. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma, File)

(Undated) -- Record rainfall arrived in central Pennsylvania one year ago come July. For practical purposes, it hasn't left, recently culminating in the rainiest 12 months on record.

Last July brought an incredible 12-plus inches to the Harrisburg area, nearly three times normal. As of the end of May, 15 of the previous 17 months had brought more rain than normal. The 67.03 inches recorded in Harrisburg in 2018 were the second-most ever. In May, 2019, it rained on 21 days, tying the record for most rainy days in a month.

All that rain, unfortunately, isn't liquid gold for farmers. Last year, it triggered various problems that added costs and cut into profits. This spring has been similarly wet, causing assorted problems, and worry about what will happen if the rainy, sunless trend continues.

In 2018, the deluge caused a borderline crisis for central Pennsylvania farmers. Various crops were stricken by disease or mold. Soil eroded. At harvest time, soggy fields threatened to bog down equipment.

"It was nearly impossible for farmers to access their fields when they were in the right condition," said Liz Bosak, a Penn State Extension educator for Dauphin and Perry counties.

"It's been a real hassle to get things done. Last year, I think a lot of vegetable farmers suffered. I know a lot of pumpkin farmers lost their crops. Pumpkins rotted in the field," said Jeff Graybill, a Penn State Extension educator in Lancaster County.

Around Pennsylvania, there were reports of crops getting washed away, or rotting in wetness. Livestock fell ill to moisture-related illnesses and hoof rot. Some farmers replanted, only to be wiped out by another deluge.

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In this Wednesday, May 15, 2019, photo Jane Dillner shows spinach leaves as they grow in rows at the Dillner Family Farm in Gibsonia, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

As the abnormal rains continued into 2019, so have problems. Some farmers who took equipment into soggy fields last year ended up with compacted soil. That can cause new crops to have trouble sinking roots, interfering with nourishment and stunting growth.

The wet spring made it hard to plant. Fields need rain-free days to become sufficiently dry. Depending on a farm's location, those days have been scarce. Soybeans, a common central Pennsylvania crop, should be planted by the mid-May. Corn should be planted by June 10.

Bosak said some fields in Perry and Dauphin remained unplanted approaching mid-June. Fields planted late won't produce as much, especially if there's bad luck at the other end of the growing season.

"If there's an early frost it could be really devastating," said Dell Voight of the Penn State Extension. Voight is based in Lebanon County.

Cutting hay has been problematic this spring, since it requires 3-4 dry days to achieve top value. It has often been too wet, forcing farmers to turn the hay into baleage, which adds to the cost.

Excessive rain washes nitrogen deep into the soil or away altogether. Farmers can add nitrogen, but it's one more expense.

None of the Harrisburg-region experts interviewed for this article spoke of major crisis. Rather, they described many scattered impacts, based on factors such as rainfall and drainage at specific locations, and varying in severity. "It's very dependent on where you are and what crops are planted," Voight said.

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Bethany Coursen and her husbands own the Valleywide Farm in Centre County. Coursen said last year's rain has a lasting impact on her farm. (Min Xian / Keystone Crossroads)

Moreover, they said crop prices in general have been low. Now, Pennsylvania farmers care coming off a difficult year and facing the prospect of another one.

In Lancaster County, farmers had trouble getting into fields as early as they would have liked, but most seem to have caught up, according to Graybill. "Where you have hills and good drainage, the crops look very good," he said.

Graybill sums up the impact of the persistent rain as a "big nuisance." In 2018, the region was on the "edge" of disaster, he said. "It wasn't everyone. It was a spotty, random type of thing," he said. "Some people suffered more than others."

Some soybean crops, for example, developed mold. That can knock 2-3 dollars per bushel off the value of a crop that would otherwise bring 8-9 dollars per bushel.

In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 33 Pennsylvania counties as primary natural disaster areas, citing farming losses caused by "excessive rain, flash flooding and flooding" which began last July 21. In the Harrisburg region, the counties include Lancaster, Lebanon and York. The designation enables the government to extend emergency loans for things needed to recover. Adjacent counties, which include all the Harrisburg region counties, also can apply for loans.

The average person might be inclined to think abundant rain is generally better for crops. It's not that simple. True, crops need a healthy amount of rain. But they also need sun.

With corn, for example, about an inch of rain every week or ten days is ideal. But substantially more than that, especially if it involves successive rainy days, can become too much of a good thing. "You want a nice rain one day and then six days of sunny weather, because plants get their energy from the sun," Graybill said. Also, a steady 86 degrees -- warm but not too hot -- is ideal for corn.

In 2019, the national farming news has been dominated by bleak stories from Midwestern states where fields have been flooded for weeks, preventing farmers from planting spring crops.

Fortunately, Pennsylvania isn't nearly as flat as those devastated states, where major flood waters can be exceedingly slow to drain. In Pennsylvania, with its hills and rolling terrain, land returns to normal more quickly.

Still, the persistent rain is preventing farmers from accomplishing things at the optimum time, and causing assorted problems that cut into their profits. It has them longing for less rain and more sun.

"The thing about farming is very year is challenging. You have challenges every year. We've probably had more of them," Graybill said of the past year.

PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.

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