METHUEN, MA – At Pleasant Valley Farm in Methuen, Heather Bonanno and her team are diligently checking flowers and putting flags on the farm’s mums as they recognize disease. The farm sections off areas to avoid in hopes of minimizing the spread.
“It’s very frustrating,” Bonanno said. “It’s just like always a new thing. The squash first had disease and now this morning I found the mums. It’s like I can’t catch a break.”
Farms throughout the region have been significantly hit this season due to the rainfall – which has lifted Massachusetts out of drought as of July 14 – and oppressive heat spells.
“Farmers are so dependent on the weather,” Bonanno said. “This is how we make our money, so if we lose a whole bunch of stuff it’s just automatically a bad year. There’s not much else we can do.”
Difficulties since February
The issues farmers are facing started before the summer season even began.
“It’s made it more difficult to figure out what we’re doing today,” said Bill Fitzgerald, who runs Mann Orchard in Methuen. “It just increased work in many ways.”
For Fitzgerald, like many other farmers in the area, the issues date back to the frost the region faced this past February.
The frost “ruins” stone fruits, like peaches and cherries, according to Smolak Farms’ Michael Smolak. Peach buds, flowers and fruit can be damaged by the lower temperatures.
“There’s only so much cider donuts can do to overcome that,” Smolak joked, noting that his farm has been ranked as No. 2 for the best donuts in the state. “It’s having a major effect but we’re pivoting to make things happen.”
Smolak and his team have planted sunflowers and zinnias for a pick-your-own program at the North Andover location, hoping to compensate for lost peaches.
And luckily for orchards, apples are very different from stone fruit. That said, the heavy rains have not benefited the crop. In some areas, farms have lost up to 90% of their apples this season, according to Smolak. He added that Brookdale Farm in Hollis lost $6 million of products.
“I just want people in the area to know that we still have plenty of apples,” Fitzgerald said. “With all of the rain we’ll have lots of big ones.”
While both Fitzgerald and Smolak do have some crops, the lack of apples throughout the region will lead to rising prices, beyond the typical inflation hikes. Smolak said that his prices have not been established for the fall yet but that he does not want “to gouge customers.”
Current weather impacts
The rain and then immediate heat leads to larger potential for diseases to grow and spread among crops.
“It’s very costly,” Bob Connors of Connors Farm said. “Everyone’s talking about Western Mass – I really feel bad for those guys out there – but it’s affecting all of us.”
Connors said his tomatoes and apples have been slightly affected.
It is also hard to fertilize vegetables due to the amount of rain and excess moisture. When rain is excessive, Bonanno said, farmers are able to turn off their irrigation systems. But that leads to a lack of fertilizer for many crops. She has to balance the amount of rain, levels of watering, and need for fertilization.
The rain also can get stuck around plants.
“They can get water logged because the rain can create puddles if not small pools,” said Dan Hicks from Sunnycrest Farm in Londonderry, adding that the farm has dug trenches to try to mitigate the rain’s impact.
Bonanno said she would prefer a year of drought compared to what she has faced this year. “Last year we were in a total drought,” she said. “This year it just couldn’t stop raining.”
Pleasant Valley Farm is connected to water in all areas. The city water is connected to one section and there is an irrigation pond for another. In a drought, Bonanno would have been covered. In too much rain, she says there’s not much she can do.
The vegetables and fruits also are not accustomed to the sun now, as they would be in a drought. Hicks said that his crops ended up “sun shocked” because they were only acclimated to rain throughout the summer.
“They hadn’t seen this much sun,” he said. “It took them a few days to pop back up.”
Bonanno is seeing disease all over her crops. She counts lettuce heads, for example, and said they look beautiful and ready to sell for the week but once they are picked and inspected, it becomes evident that the insides are rotten.
The same goes for the radishes. Bonanno got four harvests out of her field for the root vegetable. On the fifth time, she pulled the radishes up and the bottom was still in the ground, completely rotted away.
“Too much rain is sometimes worse than a drought,” Bonanno said, adding that without the sun plants seem to be blooming later than usual.
No time to make hay
Deborah Paisley of Boxford’s Paisley Farm & Greenhouses said that her crops have fortunately held up so far, but that the rain can create blight on tomatoes as well as bacterial wilts or mildew on cucumbers and other cucurbits like squash and pumpkins.
Beyond vegetables, the rain is impacting hay farmers. In Danvers at Connors Farm and in Plaistow at MorningStar Farm, there haven’t been enough dry days to cut down the hay. Farmers require three to four days with no rain prior to harvesting their fields.
Chris Hicks said that Morningstar Farms has only been able to do a partial harvest once around Memorial Day.
By this time, MorningStar Farm would typically have already finished its first cutting, allowing for the next crop to grow for the fall cutting. He said he will not have a full crop in a few months due to the weather’s continuous delays.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hicks said. “We haven’t seen a break from June 1 on.”
Hicks, who has 100 acres of fruit and vegetables and an additional 100 of hay, is hoping to have his second crop harvested Aug. 2.
“That’s the nature of farming,” Hicks said. “This cycle is very frustrating but we’re just going to ride it out.”
The rain leads to an excess of weeds as well. Bonanno said that the minute she’s done weeding she feels as if she has to go back and start again.
“All in all it’s just another thing we have to deal with being in the farming business,” Fitzgerald said. “You got to put up with times like these. It’s ups and downs.”
The farmers in the area, though, seem to be more hopeful for the 2024 season.
“I’m optimistic for next year … Next year hopefully everything will be back to normal,” Smolak said. “We planted three acres of strawberries this year so we will be good next year.”
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