A Cool, Wet Start To Summer Causes Delays For Farmers

Jun 19, 2017

With frequently wet and cool weather in Vermont this spring and summer, that's meant farmers have had to play catch up when it comes to planting crops and harvesting hay.

VPR spoke to Kirsten Workman, an agronomy specialist at the University of Vermont Extension, about how the wet start of the season is affecting farmers.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full audio above.

VPR: What are the chief problems for farmers when the weather is too cool and wet?

Workman: "When it's cool and wet early in the spring and into the now getting to be summer, there's a lot of things that get delayed, first of all.

"So for those dairy and livestock producers, their first cut of hay has mostly been delayed — and when that happens, you actually get increased yields ... because the crop gets to grow longer, but often quality can be sacrificed. So as grasses mature, they lose their quality in terms of protein and digestibility for the animals that you're going to be feeding them to.

"Luckily with hay, we have more cuts coming, so after we get that first cut off, usually farmers can kind of get a little bit caught up on the quality end of things.

"When it's really wet and really cold, [farmers] can't get out and plant things like corn, or if you're a vegetable producer, your annual vegetable crops. Then that is hard to get caught up from." – Kirsten Workman, UVM Extension

"A bigger, probably, delay that's more cumbersome and troublesome for the farmers would be delayed planting of their annual crops. When it's really wet and really cold, they can't get out and plant things like corn, or if you're a vegetable producer, your annual vegetable crops. Then that is hard to get caught up from."

Does that means farmers take an economic hit?

"Well they can, yeah. If you can't get your corn crop planted, you potentially can't get that crop for the season if it never gets in the ground.

"If it's late, like we are now, what ends up happening is they have to choose a different hybrid of corn that's a shorter season. And often those can have lower yields — not always. So they can have a reduced yield from that corn silage crop if they're going to harvest it."

What strategies can farmers use to buffer against that economic hit?

"It depends. I mean, a lot of folks who have stored feeds, they might have a surplus from the year before ... We tend to see, like, we might have a boom year and then a bust year, and they may be able to make it through that because they have enough in inventory from the really good year to kind of squeeze it through.

"It's when you have multiple years in a row where you have a challenging cropping season and low yields, that would be into a place where a farmer would then have to either buy more grain ... to feed those cows or buy other forages."

And do these conditions affect all kinds of farmers?

"Yes ... Yeah, if you call any farmer today, they're a little hairy.

"You can't get out and cultivate when it's really wet, but the weeds do just fine."

"Strawberries are late, all the fruit set is kind of delayed and just in general being [able] to get out and do the normal things they might be doing.

"So there also can be field work, like cultivating weeds in the vegetable industry. You know, you can't get out and cultivate when it's really wet, but the weeds do just fine ...

"Cold weather can also just get things off to a slow start. So there are several farms who got at least some of their corn in on time in May and kind of hit a good window and got some of that planted, but the corn itself doesn't look super happy — it's just been kind of sitting there and stalled.

"So you see a lot of that, both in those summer annual forage crops, but also in our vegetable crops where things just kind of aren't growing as they usually do."

Vermont farmers go back generations. This is a farming state, so I kind of get the feeling they've seen it all. But do they talk about climate change?

"Yeah, I mean we talk about weather all the time with farmers ... And so as they notice those trends over time, you do hear comments — mostly about the extreme variances in weather. So when it's dry, it's really dry, and when it's wet it's really wet. Or instead of getting the rain sort of over time, getting it all at once.

"So I feel like this kind of weather this year, actually, is a little bit more normal, actually, where it's kind of spread out. It's just a little inconvenient. But we do see farmers adapting to being able to be more flexible ... and just being able to make a decision on the fly."

Is it too early to tell if this season is a loss or is there time to recover?

"I think so, yeah. I mean, there will probably be fields where it might be a loss and they just don't get a crop planted. And they may adapt also, and maybe instead of corn grow a shorter sort of summer crop, like a millet or a sorghum — which won't be quite as high yielding or quite the right kind of quality that they're used to, but I don't think it's going to be a total loss for anyone.

"The one big thing is really looking for disease pressure later in the season, things like powdery mildew and northern corn leaf blight ...

"If plants are suffering because of the cool weather and the wet weather, and then a disease or a pest does come in, then they're just less able to withstand that."

"We'll be looking at things like pest pressure ... Pests tend to be sort of subdued, I feel like, when it's wet, but then you might then get a big flush after. And if plants are suffering because of the cool weather and the wet weather, and then a disease or a pest does come in, then they're just less able to withstand that. So lots of folks will just be kind of keeping an eye on stuff as it does come in. 

"In a wet year, too, we look at nutrient cycles, too. So there might be that a farmer needs to go back out and put a little more nitrogen on because they didn't get to use it in the crop, it might have washed out with some of the rain. So they'll have to come back in and figure that out later in the season."