Tonawanda News

July 7, 2013

Wet weather hampers growers

By Joyce M. Miles
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Record-setting rains in June were a mixed blessing for local growers.

At this point in the season, a surplus of rain is feeding potential late summer/early autumn bumper crops of apricots, plums, pears and apples, growers around Niagara County said last week.

However, heavy rain in late June was a curse for inland sweet cherry growers. An inch or more hit just when early varieties were ready for picking in Gasport and Lockport — devastating them.

New Royal Farms and the Schwab farm, both in Gasport, reported complete losses of their first maturing varieties.

Sweet cherries are a “volatile” crop, grower Kent Schwab said. The little, round fruit is like a sponge; and when it soaks up too much water, its skin splits. Such damaged fruit doesn’t store well, as rot starts to set in quickly.

The second half of New Royal Farms’ sweet cherry crop, a later-ripening variety, will be ready for picking this coming week. These are “still 90 percent clean and looking good — if there’s no more rain,” Buhr said.

Strawberries, a June-July crop, fared better, albeit for a shortened season. Grower Dave Coulter, of Coulter Farms in Cambria, said his crop was nearly spent by July 1 because rain on the ripe berries caused them to overripen and spoil. Were the air cooler, or the ground drier, they would have lasted longer, he said.

With nobody visiting in lousy weather, there’s a lot of spoilage in Coulter’s u-pick fields, he added.

It’s the second year in a row farmers have had to deal with extreme weather. Above normal temperatures in early spring 2012 brought fruit trees into bloom ahead of schedule, then a cold snap swept in and cut fruit development. Another record dry summer followed.

“Weather extremes are a challenge,” grower Bob Blackman, of Blackman Homestead Farms, Cambria, said. “Last year we were begging for water. This year the crop is there, but so’s the moisture. (Trees and plants) like moisture, but they don’t like to drown.”

June 2013 was the sixth-wettest June on record in the Buffalo area. According to the National Weather Service, 7.16 inches of rain fell at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport, almost twice the “normal” count of 3.66 inches. The average temperature for the month, 65.7 degrees Farenheit, was slightly below the normal temperature, 66.3 degrees.

Wet, cool conditions have been challenging vegetable growers since seeds went into the ground in April-May.

2013 is the first time in 20 years that Harris Farm Market, Ridge Road, Gasport, didn’t have early sweet corn out for sale on July 4. Ears just weren’t sufficiently ripe in time because the fields are “behind on heat,” grower Nate Harris said.

Picking was set to start Saturday — only two days later than goal, but still disappointing to Harris.

“The quality and the supply look excellent ... but the crop is behind,” he said.

String beans, summer squash, raspberries and blueberries are starting to come on now at Coulter Farms and Becker Farms in Gasport. They’re all looking good, growers say, but continued wetness prevents giving the beds the TLC — cultivating and spraying — that they need to stay healthy.

The same is true of nascent fall grape crops, according to Becker Farms owner-operator Oscar Vizcarra. While they’re up off the ground, grapes are prone to mildew and rain washes away the needed anti-fungal treatments.

“The challenge is protecting the crops. We need a quick dry-up, a change in the next week or so, or we’ll be in trouble,” Vizcarra said.

A quick dry-up also is needed by wheat growers, whose crops are maturing now. Andrew Milleville, of A.M. Farms in Cambria, says his fields will be ready for harvesting next weekend and the more it rains now, the less valuable the grain will be.

“We need warm, sunny days to finish it off,” Milleville said. “Rain ruins the quality of the harvest. We’re not there yet, thankfully, but ... if the flour mills don’t want it, it goes to feed, at half price.”

Whether growers can look forward to a weather turnaround is iffy, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Kelly. The service’s long-term outlook for the area, covering the months of July, August and September, suggests “equal chances” that rainfall and temperature could be above normal, below normal or just plain normal.

“There really is no strong signal indicating warmer or cooler, drier or wetter (conditions) than normal,” Kelly said. “You could say it’s 50/50.”