Water-weary farmers fear final blow from Matthew

Agriculture, meet aquaculture.

More than a foot of rain fell on Delmarva during the last week of September, flooding low-lying agricultural fields and forcing farmers to halt their combines in the middle of the crucial harvest season.

“I talked to one farmer who said he didn’t think he’d seen rain like this in the fall for over 20 years," said Jarrod Miller, an educator with the University of Maryland Extension office in Princess Anne. "It’s been a pretty tough year.”

And it may just get a lot tougher.

It's too early to say exactly how much more wind and rain Hurricane Matthew will bring to the already battered peninsula, if any. But the mere threat is sending waves of concern through the agricultural community.

“You’ve got a soil that’s heavily saturated, which makes it more prone to the plant uprooting if it gets more wind and the fact that it’s been beaten up badly already," said Sam Parker, who grows mostly corn and soybeans on 350 acres scattered around eastern Wicomico County.

He estimates that about 5 percent of his corn crop blew over during the Sept. 28-29 deluge. Most of it, he thinks he can scoop up with his combine.

"But I can’t take anything else," Parker added.

Matthew could be a devastating punctuation to a year riddled with woes for farmers. An unusually wet spring delayed planting of summer crops on many farms, shortening the growing season. Then, the unusually hot summer boiled off any hope of a high yield for temperamental corn.

PHOTOS: Water-weary farmers fear final blow from Matthew

By the week that ended Sunday, just 34 percent of Maryland's crop of corn grown for grain had been harvested compared with 52 percent last year by that time, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Delaware, 51 percent had been gleaned, down from 70 percent.

With one eye on the forecast, farmers like Parker raced last week to harvest what they could. Now, what's left needs to stay in the ground at least another week to wait for the soil to dry out; the heavy machinery would bog down or do too much damage to the soil otherwise, farmers says.

There's also an economic reason for the delay. It costs grain elevators money to heat and dry out wet product.  So, farmers receive less money from buyers for grains with too much moisture inside.

Lee Richardson, a farmer near Willards, said water levels reached the tassels of 8-foot-tall corn stalks on about five acres of his sprawling farm last week. The flood waters had backed up from the swollen Pocomoke River nearby.

By Monday, he was back to harvesting but only because he saw little other choice. He could take a 50-cent hit per bushel on his crop or wait until the weekend to see what the hurricane might bring. And that wasn't a chance he was willing to take.

“Even though we’d like it to be drier, we’re still trying to get it out with this hurricane coming," Richardson said.

Vegetables and fruits mostly had been picked and sent to market by the end of September. But the rising waters menaced pumpkins, watermelons and other late-season crops.

At Adkins Farm east of Salisbury, Gaylon Adkins measured 14 inches of rain over the soggy week. He spent the days ahead of the storms picking as many pumpkins as he could. They tend to soak up all the water they can and rot from the inside out whenever they get too much water, he said.

He was able to pluck about 80 percent of his pumpkins off the vine. The fate of the rest is in the hands of Mother Nature, he said.

This year was pretty much a wash at Twin Oak Farms near Stockton, Rick Blevins said.

About half of the strawberry crop simply drowned. Tomatoes stopped bearing fruit early. When it came time to plant kale, cabbage and other late-season produce, he decided to save his time, effort and money for another year.

With the recent flooding and the dire predictions for more rain with Matthew, Blevins said he is more confident than ever he made the right call.

"They’re talking with what this hurricane is going to do and the ground is already soaking wet," he said, "where’s (the water) going to go?"


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