May 26, 2018
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Rain plumps strawberries, but hinders other crops

By Sharon Kiley Mack, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — The overwhelming number of rainy days in June has left some Maine farmers unable to put tractors in their fields, has rotted some seed right in the ground, and has cut the quality of the state’s hay crop in half.

But in most areas it’s been wonderful for the strawberries and the potatoes, and peas are looking pretty good, too.

If you don’t mind wearing a rain suit and boots, this year’s berry harvest should be fine, Dave Handley, a small fruit and vegetable expert with the University of Maine said Tuesday.

“Despite the lack of sun, the strawberries are ripening up,” Handley said, after just coming in from his fields Tuesday afternoon. “They are looking really good right now.”

Maine Agriculture Commissioner Seth Bradstreet visited Tuesday morning with growers at the Augusta Farmers Market. When asked what they told him about the weather, Bradstreet laughed and said “Their comments are unprintable.”

But he said that farmers are used to weather inconsistencies and only if the rain continues well into July will Maine’s agriculture community be in real trouble.

“Certainly we’re wet and we’ve been wet too long,” Bradstreet said. “There are some pockets where the fields are very, very wet. We definitely need some sunshine and heat.”

Bradstreet said it appears that the southern section of the state has received more rain than the central area and Aroostook County seems to be fine.

“I talked to some potato farmers up there and they are planning on cultivating some fields today,” Bradstreet said.

“But central and southern Maine definitely need some sun,” he added. “If we get into the second week of July and we don’t warm up and have sunshine, we’re going to be in trouble.”

Michael Sempa of the National Weather Service’s office in Gray said that even though the weather should improve as the week progresses, farmers shouldn’t look for the sun until Thursday or Friday.

Sempa reported that Bangor recorded 6.76 inches of rain as of June 21 — 4.34 inches above normal.

Handley said that although the cool temperatures and heavy rain have slowed the strawberry ripening process, the biggest problem is that the rain is keeping pickers away.

“They are just staying home,” Handley said. The cool, wet weather slows vegetable and fruit growth, he said, but added, “We can’t go on like this much longer. We need some prolonged sunny, dry days, which is what we would normally be having right now.”

The seemingly endless rain comes on the heels of a highly successful asparagus and fiddlehead season, Handley said. “No one is panicking, but we are constantly looking up at the sky.”

Handley said some farmers have lost some early seed sowings, such as pumpkins, squash and cucumbers, and not only has the rain washed away a lot of the fertilizer put on the fields this spring, the fields also are too wet for farmers to drive their tractors on to replant or refertilize.

“When you have to plant seeds or fertilize for a second time, it really adds to a farmer’s expense,” Handly said.

But as big and plump as the berries appear, hay and corn for cow feed are being negatively affected, Rick Kersbergen of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Waldo County said Tuesday.

“For the farmers that got their first cutting of hay off early, it’s great,” he said, “because the second crop is coming quickly.”

But for those farmers who didn’t, they are now unable to drive on the fields to cut the hay. “Every day it continues to grow, it’s nutritional quality drops,” Kersbergen said.

He estimated that 50 percent of the dairy, hay and grass farmers are losing hay. “We won’t be in trouble this winter volumewise,” he said. “But we will be qualitywise.”

An additional problem, Kersbergen said, is corn cutworms. “They are damaging the corn silage crop but farmers can’t get into the fields to spray. Some are trying hand-sprayers to treat the real hot spots.”

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