What a difference a few rainy, snowy months can make.
Last summer and fall, a prolonged drought caused wells to dry up and crops to wither in fields and gardens in most parts of the state. But the drought is a problem of the past right now. Unusually wet conditions and cold temperatures in the first half of May pose their own issues for Maine farmers who can’t seem to catch a break from a fickle Mother Nature.
“The calendar is behind for the growers,” Rick Kersbergen, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension professor, said Tuesday. “We’re two weeks behind, and that’s going to push things back. There’s a lot of fields that farmers can’t even work right now because they’re just too wet, and it’s really going to crunch their time budgeting.”
He said vegetable growers and other farmers across the state have anxiously awaited the period of sun and warmer temperatures, which began Tuesday and is predicted to last for four days or so. Among those who are waiting are dairy farmers and others who plant corn, which needs to have soil temperatures above 50 degrees to germinate.
“If they planted it now, it would just sit there,” Kersbergen said. “And in wet fields, it would rot.”
Another person who is anxious to get planting is Khris Flack, the program manager for Veggies for All, a nonprofit food bank farm in Unity. He said he has 9,000 or so onion seedlings that ordinarily would be in the ground by now but because of the wet conditions are not.
“We raised them in a greenhouse, and we did move them outside [two weeks ago] in a gesture of good faith, positivity and optimism,” he said. “They’re just still outside in the flats. … I went to look at them this morning, and they’re just starting to yellow at the tips. They’re just ready to go.”
So is Flack, but he has to wait until the ground is a little bit hardier before he can work in it.
“I’m squeezing water out of soil. It’s wet and squishy when I walk on it,” he said, joking he’s dreaming of drying out the fields with box fans and hair dryers.
But in seriousness, he said the wet spring — the second wettest first half of May on record, according to the National Weather Service office in Caribou — has solidified his desire to transition from a conventional system of tilling the soil with a tractor to a low-till or no-till strategy.
“Planting in wet soil is no problem, but the heavy machinery working of it is what really causes the delay,” Flack said. “Soil compaction is a really major concern. Even if you’re not worried about your tractor getting stuck, just driving on the soil when it’s really wet, you’re worried about compaction. You could be spending years building up good soil and healthy tilth [cultivated land], but if you drive on it at the wrong side when it’s too wet, all that work can go out the window.”
The cold, wet weather posed other kinds of problems for farmers who work with animals. Shea Rolnick of Knotty Goat Soapery in Winterport said she has had to contend with hoof rot in her herd of 10 dairy goats. The ground outside is wet, she said, and even though the goats live in a sound barn that is elevated on a gravel pad, they bring the moisture inside with them.
“When they can’t get their hooves to dry out well, they can develop hoof rot,” she said. “That’s a bacterial infection that starts to eat away at the living part of the foot. … If left untreated, it can cause goats to go lame and limp around.”
Although hoof rot tends to be a problem every spring, it’s worse this year than it was for the past couple of years, she said.
In addition to the problems with their hooves, goats also suffer in some other ways with the weather.
“They hate rain,” she said. “They’re bored, so they hang out in the barn a lot. It leads to bored behavior, like chewing on the barn, bullying each other. We definitely see the behavioral changes that go along with the rain. They have the option to go out, but they don’t want to, and I can’t say as I blame them.”
Flack said humans are mentally challenged by the weather, too.
“I think when people think about farming, they think about the physical work,” he said. “I think the start to this season has highlighted how much psychological work we do. The constant adjustment. Constant decision making and constant rearranging of plans.”
The rain, of course, is not just bad news, especially in a state which suffered under the 2016 drought. Wells are recharging and farm ponds and lakes and other bodies of water have refilled.
“That’s a silver lining,” Kersbergen said. “But in terms of crop development, I don’t see a silver lining to this. It really is going to be a very hectic time for producers. … It’s a battle right now, that’s for sure.”