DIXMONT, Maine — The 14 acres of Peacemeal Farm are quiet and still as the day begins. There’s a sense of in-between as farmer Mark Guzzi walks through ankle-deep mud to the spinach-filled hoop house at the bottom of a gently sloping hill.
Carrying hand-crafted wooden apple boxes in one hand, he looks over his still-empty fields with a keen eye and a sense of eagerness.
“The snow banks were slow to recede this year,” he says. “Typically you’d expect a window [of warm weather] in April, and that window is proving elusive.”
Guzzi’s sentiments echo those of farmers throughout Maine.
Spring 2015 has been slow to start.
Farmers who normally would be planting their first crops of the season — peas, radishes and leafy greens — are instead finding themselves in greenhouses still harvesting over-wintered parsnips and spinach instead of seated on tractors tilling fields.
But with warm weather expected the first week in May, farms from Caribou to Kittery are playing catch up as they prepare for what’s expected to be a hotter than normal summer, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
A late start
Dave Kousky, a farmer at Kousky Farm in Corinth, is well-known to other farmers as the first person hitting the field each spring. But even Kousky was delayed this year.
He first plowed April 15, which compared to 2014 was two days earlier, but much later than years before that.
“Usually on a normal year, we get on the fields between the 31st of March and April 7,” Kousky said.
Kousky Farm boasts several acre-sized knolls, so some areas were tillable in late April while others were still too wet. However, Kousky argues once the soil is turned over, it heats up making it worthwhile to hit the dirt as early as possible.
“The minute you plow it, steam starts coming off the land, you’re letting air in there and fluffing it up,” he said.
Most farmers use a soil thermometer to tell when the dirt is ready, but at Peacemeal, there’s a little less science at play.
“When it’s time to get on the ground, you want to be on the ground as quick as possible,” Guzzi said. “But if you go out there to work and get stuck, then the ground’s not dry enough.”
However, Kate Garland, University of Maine Cooperative Extension horticulturalist, cautions against tilling when the ground is still wet enough to stick to a shovel because it can break down the structure of the soil over time.
“Commercial farmers sometimes have to do that, but if you can wait, it’s better to resist the temptation of getting out too early,” she said.
Ahead of his peers by weeks, Kousky already has seeds and seedlings in the ground. Mostly, he said, because the winter doesn’t have much effect unless there’s a late-season frost.
“Most of the stuff I got in is doing good,” he said.
Despite record breaking snows this winter, Garland said farmers and home gardeners really shouldn’t see any long-term damage to the quality of soil.
However, structures may not be so fortunate.
Guzzi said he knew several farmers who lost hoop houses because of the heavy snow, and one problem that may pop up later as plants mature is pests. With deep snow, bugs often bury deep down near the soil and stay warm all winter instead of dying off.
A long winter can delay harvest because of the late start to planting outdoors. But with proper planning, vegetables with shorter growth timelines can be ready in time for the first few weeks of market while the ones that take longer have time to catch up.
“Diversity plays a role especially if you’re looking to have a lot of things available throughout the course of the season, it’s a constant planting, weeding, harvesting cycle,” Guzzi said.
To him, farming is “like an illness for which there is no cure,” in other words, there’s no turning back.
“The only thing [a harsh winter] means is that we live in Maine,” Guzzi said with a smile.
According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, often referred to as a farmer’s bible, May is supposed to be cool and wet. But by June, temperatures will increase and summer in Maine is expected to be hotter than normal, with a below normal rainfall.
Kousky Farm has a drip irrigation system as well as overhead sprinklers Kousky said he’ll use if it’s been several days since the last rain.
At Peacemeal Farm, Guzzi said he tries not to worry until he has to. Farming, he said, is unpredictable, even in the most routine of years.
It is “like an illness for which there is no cure,” he said. In other words, there’s no turning back so it’s better to go with the flow.
“Over time, you start to understand that there’s nothing you can do, all you can do is the best you can … and take it as it comes,” he said offering a bit of philosophy he’s been forced to learn after more than two decades depending on the fields for his living.
In the meantime, Garland said she is watching weather patterns religiously, eager to get out and start her own season at her home garden.
“This time of year, I’m checking the [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] website everyday, figuring out what’s going to work and making contingency plans as needed,” Garland said.