Heavy rains dampening farmers' summer profits

kblunt@newsobserver.comJuly 11, 2013 

The heavy rains expected through the weekend are dampening the spirits of area farmers who are still struggling to tend saturated fields and recoup heavy losses of crops and produce.

Rainfall last month totaled 10.08 inches in the Triangle, more than 6 inches above average.

Many low-lying fields were flooded, drowning some summer fruits and vegetables.

“I have plants that are browning and rotting, and the fields are too wet for me to get in and plant new ones,” said Dean Sergent, owner of Cedar Rock Farm in Castalia, about 50 miles northeast of Raleigh.

Sergent estimates he has lost about $3,000 in carrots, beans, onions, tomatoes and sweet potatoes.

For farmers who grow crops for large-scale food companies, there is much at stake if the rain continues. The high levels of precipitation in many parts of North Carolina have already caused serious damage to the state’s field crops. Don Nicholson, a regional agronomist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, said nearly 40 percent of the state’s wheat crop hasn’t yet been harvested because of the rain.

“The quality of the crop goes down the longer it’s in the ground,” he said. “Wheat should weigh about 60 pounds per bushel, and now I’d say it’s in the mid-50s. It’s a gauge of the quality of the wheat.”

Organic, wheat farmers struggle

The heavy rainfall has also made crops more susceptible to disease and brought another kind of headache to other farmers.

Judy Lessler, owner of Harland’s Creek Farm in Pittsboro, is now engaged in a battle against an onslaught of weeds birthed by the wet soil. “Because we use organic methods, we don’t put any kind of poison in the fields or on the bricks to keep the weeds back,” she said. “Normally, the weeds wouldn’t grow as much because we’d only put water on the plants and the rest of the soil would be dry.”

Lessler grows fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs for the Durham Farmers Market and the Mid-Chatham Farmers Alliance CSA. She said her tomatoes will suffer if the rain continues.

Stephen Koenning, a professor of plant pathology at N.C. State University, said the wheat crop is more susceptible to microtoxins and other pathogens that render the crop unsellable when it stays wet. “Not being able to harvest the wheat makes it more likely to develop wheat scab and other fungi that affect the grain,” he said.

Harder to tend crop

In Fuquay-Varina, most of the wheat at Revels Farms is still in the ground, struggling to stand as the rain beats down. Kent Revels, owner of the farm, estimated the weather has already cost him more than a quarter of the crop. He said some of the remaining wheat has germinated prematurely, which decreases the quality of the grain.

Some of Revels’ cotton, tobacco, soybean and peanut plants have also fallen victim to the rain. He said he hasn’t been able to adequately tend the fields and spray the crops between the storms. “Even if you do get out to spray, it’ll rain an hour or two later and wash the chemicals off,” he said. “Most of the chemicals need to stay on for four or six hours to set in. The chemicals are very expensive and it has definitely been a struggle. It still is. Even if it dries up, it’s going to be a struggle for the whole summer because of the damage that has been done.”

Farmers generally plant soybeans after clearing their fields of wheat, and the delayed wheat harvest has delayed much of the state’s soybean production, Nicholson said. He expressed concern about tobacco production, as well. “Tobacco doesn’t like wet feet,” he said. “For tobacco, you want hotter, drier weather in June because it puts good roots on the plants. If it stays dry and doesn’t get too hot during the rest of the summer, we could make a decent crop, but if it keeps raining like this, it could be very damaging.”

Revels said he’ll be lucky if he breaks even this year.

“We’ve got a lot of money invested in this farm, and a lot of time and work,” he said. “But I’ve been farming all of my life. I know what it takes, and I know what you can lose. It’s not good, but I’m sure someone has it worse than we do.”

Blunt: 919-829-8985

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