Crops in crisis

Posted July 01, 2009, at 8:20 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:16 p.m.

LINCOLN — Earl Ireland has been farming vegetables for 50 years and said Wednesday that he had never seen weather such as Maine is experiencing now.
“Another 10 days of rain and we’ll be out of business,” he said.

Ireland raises vegetables and berries on his Lincoln farm, and in a normal year, would have planted 70 acres this spring.

“We got in 35. We couldn’t get on the rest of the fields,” he said.

The lack of sun and continued rain are causing crops to rot in the fields.

“Nothing is growing and what is there is molding on the vine,” he said. “I don’t think we are even going to be able to salvage the pea crop.”

It’s an assessment being repeated on farms all over the state.

Crop-devouring insects that are thriving in the wet conditions, plants and fruit molding in the fields, and farmers’ inability to drive tractors on the wet ground are taking a crisis-level toll on Maine’s farmers.

Walt Whitcomb of Belfast raises corn, and thousands of cutworms have devastated about one-third of his feed corn acreage. But Whitcomb can’t drive on the fields to spray the needed insecticide, “and in two weeks, we are anticipating an even bigger problem — army worms. They eat everything, go across roads, up trees. There will be no fighting back.”

Late blight disease — the cause of the Irish potato famine — has been spotted in Maine, but farmers aren’t able to get on the fields to cull or spray infected plants, jeopardizing Maine’s potato crop.

“Think about getting your lawnmower stuck on your front lawn,” Rick Kersbergen of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension said Wednesday. “Now multiply that by 100 acres or more.”

Kersbergen said some large dairy farms, trying to save their feed corn crops, are seeking aerial sprayers to apply insecticide. Other farmers are erecting hoop-style greenhouses to keep the moisture off plants.

“It is bad, really bad out there,” he said.

Ken Gustin, state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, said Wednesday that farmers may not know the overall loss until the end of the year. He already has asked each county to provide the agency with damage assessment reports.

“We know there are problems because of 22 out of 30 days with either rain or no sun,” Gustin said. The paperwork being compiled will be used to go after a governor’s declaration of disaster or federal loss programs.

At Spiller Farm in Wells, Bill Spiller said the rain has completely ruined his season. “We are getting some strawberries but a lot of mold is settling in. The raspberries are molding as they ripen,” Spiller said.

In Washington in Knox County, Sweet Season Farm’s strawberries and raspberries are molding, while blueberries are loving the wet weather.

“For every strawberry we pick, we throw four away,” Virginia Reardon said. “We are getting a fairly good crop but the mold and the slugs are taking it away.”

Nathan Pennell, district manager for the Washington County Soil and Water Conservation District, said the area’s hay crop has been greatly affected. “It will be another two weeks before most of us will be able to start first crop,” he said. “This year it may therefore be September before we start haying. Totally unheard of in the past.”

David Bright and Jean Hay of Bright Berry Farm in Dixmont reported Wednesday that their berries set well before the rains came.

“The good ones are awesome, big and beautiful, thanks to the rain,” Bright said. “But we have had quite a bit of mold problems in recent days, with entire berries molding on the stalk and moldy spots on otherwise beautiful specimens. Yield is up dramatically because of the rain, but shrinkage is way high.”

Bright added, “Our other worry is if this weather holds for another couple of weeks, the raspberries will ripen and promptly mold on the cane, as they did seven or eight years ago, when we — and most growers in the state — pretty much lost our entire crop.”

Bright said the tips of some of the pea plants seem to be tired of the rain, but not enough to affect the yield. His corn, however, is not growing because of the lack of warm days.

“Squash and pumpkins have also slowed right down, but most are hanging in there. Before we realized it, the summer squash and melons were eaten up by the slugs that nuzzled under the cover. Then the cucumber beetles settled right in,” he said.

“The good news is that every time we get an inch of rain it saves us about 4 gallons of gas because we don’t have to run the irrigation pump to water plants the hose lines won’t reach,” Bright said. “We have two kids living in Seattle who we think are beginning to feel sorry for us.”

Jane Eaton of Beauty of the Earth Farm in Robbinston said farmers are struggling to get customers to turn out at area farmers markets for the fresh produce that is still able to be harvested.

She reported that at last week’s Sunrise County Farmers Market in Calais, Ted Carter of Alexander was selling “snowshoe lettuce,” so named because his wife, Liz, harvested the lettuce in snowshoes because the ground was too soft to walk on.

Eaton said that her farm, which produces mainly flowers, just finished up a fantastic peony season, shipping almost 3,500 stems to the cut-flower markets in Boston and Connecticut.

“The peonies were a little early this year, but the lack of sun means the next big crop, lilies, is slow, so I may suffer a gap in my ability to provide my customers,” she said.
John and Christine Alexander of Sugar Hill Cranberry Co. in Columbia said the rain is complicating production.

“The increase in rain is slowing down the whole growing process and makes scheduling for applying fertilizer difficult to do on a timely basis,” the Alexanders wrote in an e-mail. “The lack of sun is keeping the pods on the uprights of the vines from turning into blossoms, so bees are also affected. There is also potential for fruit rot after cranberries set, but we won’t know that for awhile.”

Robin Follette of Seasons Eating Farm in Talmadge said she went to bed Tuesday night thinking the soil was draining nicely and she could spend Wednesday pulling weeds.
“I woke up to pouring rain at 2:30 a.m. If the weather doesn’t change very soon, the summer harvest will be 50 percent of what I expected,” she said.

State Rep. Nancy Smith, D-Monmouth, is a diversified farmer and has managed to retain her sense of humor. “We’ve renamed our farm Snafu Acres Slug Farm,” she said. “And if we could just find a way to market those things, our problems would be solved.”

···

Garden poetry
Backyard gardener Abby Shahn of Cornville e-mailed a crop report that read a bit like poetry:

Some things are happy.
Some are gone.
My poor basil has been dying slowly.
Dill plants just disappeared totally.
Beans don’t stand a chance.
but
Onions and garlic are happy and fat.
Tomato plants seem stout and green, but will they bear fruit?
Broccoli seems happy enough … Not too many cucumber beetles so far …
Slugs, slugs, slugs, fat and firm … kind of disgusting.
Curly hair and sodden shoes.

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