Johnston County strawberries think it’s springtime, and who can blame them?
This past December has been springlike in practically every measure kept by the N.C. Climate Office’s Clayton station. It’s been warm, wet and humid, and county agricultural leaders are seeing crop cycles out of whack and harvests sold off for losses or left in the field to rot.
The average daily temperature of 55 degrees is at least seven degrees warmer than the last four Decembers. Perhaps more telling, in the last four years, the average low temperature for December has been in the 30s; in December 2015, it was 46.
Bryant Spivey is director of the Johnston County Cooperative Extension Service. He said corn, cotton and tobacco harvests came in fine, but farmers have largely left their soybeans and peanuts in the field.
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“If you think back to the fall, we’ve had fairly wet soil conditions and almost no cold weather,” Spivey said. “Soybean harvests normally go best when we have dry days. ... We’ve just had such high moisture, many days it’s not appropriate to pick soybeans. You’ve got to have dry days to get it done.”
Spivey said some soybean growers waited for dry days that never came and started to see damaged pods, cutting into what the crop will fetch at market.
“Some have seen 100 percent damage, leading to severe discounts when brought to the mill,” Spivey said.
While it’s been the warmest December in five years, it’s also been the wettest. The rain total for December 2014 was 5.89 inches. In December 2015, it was 6.71. The problem with this December’s rainfall has been its persistence, adding up to more days with measurable rain than without. This wetness has killed Johnston County’s usual planting of winter wheat, oats and rye. At this point, it’s too late to get those grains into the ground.
“It’s prevented us from planting winter crops,” Spivey said. “It’s too wet to get planting done, reducing our acres of wheat. It’s too late at this point.”
Plants largely tell time by the temperature, and Spivey said some strawberry growers are seeing plants tricked by the warmth into blooming too early.
“Strawberries are planted in the fall and harvested in April,” he said. “It’s been so warm, strawberries are blooming in a time they wouldn’t normally bloom. It’s odd trying to fruit in December.”
For those outside farming, the rains have mostly just been a nuisance. The National Weather Service issued flood warnings for the area, but Johnston County assistant fire marshal Banks Wallace said the county has answered no call for for flooding-related emergencies.
Flooding closed a portion of Richardson Bridge Road in eastern Johnston from Dec. 25 to Dec. 28, but it reopened Dec. 29. In Clayton, the Neuse River spilled over its banks and onto the greenway, closing the walking trail for Christmas Eve, but it reopened the next day when the water level dropped.
“We’ve had no major issues,” Wallace said.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson