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Capital Region farmers frustrated by wet spring

Capital Region farmers frustrated by wet spring

Wet weather, an issue for farmers across the country, could have impacts down the road
Capital Region farmers frustrated by wet spring
Owner of Eildon Tweed Farm, Dave Wood shows how wet on one of their properties are in West Charlton on Friday.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

David Wood has been farming in Saratoga County for nearly a half-century and he doesn't recall a tougher spring as far as trying to get fields dry enough to cut or plant.

"It's been terrible," said Wood, who operates the 1,200-milking-head Eildon Tweed Farm in West Charlton. "It's the worst I can remember. This year, we've had the daily rain, and it's kept the top of the fields wet."

Wood and other farmers who have hay to cut and corn to plant are weeks behind schedule, thanks to the frequently overcast and rainy weather across the Capital Region, which keeps them from bringing equipment into fields, where it could get stuck in mud.

"It's been pretty persistent," said Neil Peck, a sixth-generation family farmer at Welcome Stock Farm in Northumberland, another of Saratoga County's largest farms. "On the farm here, we're struggling to get the grass cut and harvested and the corn planted, because the hay fields need to be dry and firm to get equipment out on them, and the cornfields really need to be dry, otherwise the corn planter will compact the soil too much."

Wood, Peck and other Capital Region farmers aren't alone -- tillage and planting are weeks behind schedule across New York state, and farmers in the Midwest and even California are sharing in the pain of dealing with excessive rain or severe spring weather.

Snow had hit the Colorado Plains, rain and tornadoes threaten the Great Plains and Upper Midwest, and excess rain is even impacting California's agriculture-rich central valley.

Farm weather woes come on top of dealing with continued low milk prices and the ongoing questions about crop sales raised by the trade war with China and other international trade disputes in which the United States is involved.

"It's a perfect storm for farmers," said John Radliff, a small-scale dairy farmer in Cobleskill.

Statewide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service reported last week that about 7 percent of corn has been planted. That compares with 39 percent planted at the same point in 2018 and 37 percent as the five-year average.

"Too much rain and cold days. And days when it doesn't rain it's cloudy, so the ground doesn't dry out," said David Holck, executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency office for Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties. "It's pretty much across the entire state. It's pretty much uniform across the state and really across the entire country."

A separate government-maintained agricultural statistic shows that through the week ending May 19, 67 percent of New York state topsoil had "surplus" moisture, as did 64 percent of the subsoil.

That means tractors and other equipment taken into fields risk getting stuck in mud or digging ruts that will cause problems for that same equipment later in the growing season.

Weather is often a frustration for farmers. In 2017, the spring was also slow arriving and wet, but Wood said this spring has been worse.

His farm, which plants on more than 2,000 acres of owned and leased land, cut and collected its first hay last Tuesday and Wednesday. But Wood estimated he's planted perhaps 15 percent of his corn -- work that would be more than half done by this point in most years.

"There have been no sunny days, and the surface stays wet enough that we can't get in the fields," Wood said. "We made some ruts yesterday when we were mowing."

New York Farm Bureau is monitoring the conditions.

"This is a statewide problem," said state Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Ammerman. "We're hearing from every region of the state. There's been rain almost every day, so the soil never really dries out. There really haven't been many days of sunshine."

Despite the perception of a cold and wet spring, the Capital Region is actually only a little wetter than during a normal spring, according to the National Weather Service. Through Wednesday, there have been 8.12 inches of precipitation recorded at Albany International Airport since March 1, only about a half-inch more than normal.

"We're actually very close to normal precipitation and temperature, but we've had nearly daily rain and a lot of days with cloud cover. We haven't had the days of sunshine we usually have," said Kevin Lipton, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Albany.

The Farm Service Agency is closely monitoring the weather because as the situation evolves there is the potential for a federal agricultural disaster declaration, based on potential crop losses.

Holck said farmers may end up facing difficult choices in how to use their resources.

"Let's say the weather improves. What do you do, plant your corn or cut your hay? Most farmers can't do both," Holck said.

Holck said most private crop insurance policies require that insured corn be planted by June 10. "There's going to be a lot of corn planted after June 10 this year. It's just inevitable," he said.

In Cobleskill, Radliff hasn't even tried to plant corn -- and he says the weather hasn't cooperated since last year, with a wet fall followed by an early and severely cold winter that killed some of his alfalfa crop, a phenomena called "winter kill."

Winter kill was common across the state this year. "It was a really hard winter on the fields," said Peck, whose farm is in a concentration of commercial agriculture facilities in northeastern Saratoga County. "The ground is frozen and then you get rain, and you'd see all these little ponds on the fields and then they freeze."

Reactions range from determination, resignation and the fatalism common among people whose occupations revolve around the weather, sometimes all in the same conversation.

"My philosophy is, I don't look a month down the road or a week down the road, I look at what I have to do today, and if I accomplish what I have to do today I feel good," said Radliff, who after 46 years in dairy farming continues to milk 37 cows in a world where large-scale dairy farming dominates. "Down the road I can't be optimistic.

"I'm not going to fret about the weather. There's nothing I can do about the weather. When it improves, I'll get out there," Radliff added.

There will be long-term impacts from a slow launch to crop season, like less yield. Since dairy farmers are generally growing corn and hay to feed their animals the rest of the year, there could be shortages of feed and cows could yield less milk. The price of whatever feed is available could go up.

"Especially in a year like this, you and all your neighbors are in the same situation looking for sileage," Holck said.

"Farmers really want to get every crop into the ground by the end of May and that really hasn't happened this year," said the Farm Bureau's Ammerman. "For a lot of farms, they haven't even started planting. Farmers may be forced to seek other food sources. If the forage isn't good, it can affect milk production."

"There's not too much we or farmers can do," Ammerman concluded. "We're at the mercy of Mother Nature."

At the National Weather Service, Lipton said things will change, at least a little.

"It looks like it will be getting warmer, and more of a pattern of showers rather than all-day rain," he said.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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