‘The whole Eastern Seaboard is lagging behind’

Crops delayed after frigid winter

Date Published: 
June 27, 2014

If the cold weather this winter didn’t get you, the repeated snowstorms did, as the farming season has been delayed across the board — from fruits to grains, from Delaware to Georgia.

“We’re struggling right now to stay on schedule,” said Christopher Magee of Magee Farms, which farms a combined 2,000 acres from Lewes to Ocean Pines, Md. “We’re probably about two weeks behind. It’s kind of a national thing. All up and down the East Coast, everybody is behind, just because of the weather.

“Anytime you get snow in March, it really sets a lot of things behind. Watermelons, sweet corn… they’re very sensitive.”

Farmers couldn’t risk a late freeze, so they waited until April to plant.

“Things are a little bit later this year. The spring was so cool it really didn’t warm up until April-ish,” said Hail Bennett of Bennett Orchards.

The farming weather hasn’t been all bad this year, though. Spring was late, but increasingly warmer, so crops didn’t deal with a rollercoaster of heat and late frosts.

“Strawberries … were probably about 10 days later than normal,” said Magee, who was still selling berries into June.

“The one morning I woke up and it was 44 degrees out in May. That’s crazy. That’s March weather,” Magee said. “But we’re chugging along, hope to be done planting this week.”

He looked to finish sowing soybeans and do pumpkins soon. Magee Farms harvests a 10-to-1 ratio of chicken feed corn to vegetables. If there’s enough time, Magee will reuse the sweet-corn fields for soybeans.

He said he was worried over having enough time between harvest and the timeframe when distributors want crops to be ready.

That rush reminded him of ‘Sussex County traffic jams,’ where cars on two-lane roads get stuck behind a slowly-moving tractor or other farm equipment.

“People get mad at us for driving slow. We drive as fast as we can. We’re in more of a rush than you think you are,” Magee said.

This wintry speed bump also delayed the opening of some local farmers’ markets. The Millville Farmers’ Market was delayed by two weeks, to June 19.

“Mother Nature is going through menopause,” said Market Manager Linda Kent. “Hot and cold and rainy and so forth — and they just don’t have the products.”

“The whole Eastern Seaboard is behind. Normally, they’re picking corn in Georgia for three weeks. They only started four, five days ago,” Magee said in early June. “I’m kinda happy I’m behind, because I can’t compete against that.”

If everyone was growing at the same rate, the market would work similar to usual. But if the South lagged into the northern growing season, smaller Delmarva farmers would have major competition, he explained.

“We’re still dealing with the really, really cold winter,” said Bennett, noting that the January low was about -14 degrees Fahrenheit. “I don’t think anyone thought it could be that cold in Delaware, not in recent years.”

Bennett warned that some of his family’s crops — which include varieties of peaches and blueberries — will be “a lot lighter” because the closed flower buds still suffered in minus-10-degree weather. Of 18 varieties, he said, “Some are completely untouched. Some there are hardly anything left,” depending on their tolerance for cold, he explained.

But they have to produce.

“If I miss a crop or a time slot, my customer’s going to go look for corn someplace else,” Magee said. “Beat-up corn or not, I have to have it.”

The peaches bloomed two weeks late, but Bennett said the 2,500 peach trees are only about a week behind now. Anything colder could have brought devastation. Bennett spoke of minus-20-degree weather killing entire orchards in Michigan.

“It’s not a great year, but it could be a whole heck of a lot worse,” Bennett emphasized.

Protecting the crops is possible, Bennett said, on nights when the temperature dips just below 28 degrees. In the past, they’ve hired a helicopter to hover over the orchards to churn the rising warm air back to the ground.

But that’s only when the ground temperature is just a few degrees below the peach blossoms’ tolerance threshold. If the weather is 10 degrees lower, it’s not worth hiring a helicopter to tread cold air.

As a child, Bennett said, he thought the helicopter was exciting.

“It’s not so much fun anymore, because you can lose your entire crop in an hour or two of cold weather.”

Bennett was on the edge of his seat when a hailstorm skirted the farm in May, but there were only a few nicks on the fruit.

“Overall, it doesn’t look like a terrible crop,” Bennett said. “Things can change, too. You never know exactly what you have until you put it in the basket.”

Blueberries should still have a good season, he added, as the blueberries are a lot tougher in cold weather, and have grown in only their second year of production at Bennett Orchards. The northern fruit cleverly blooms later to avoid frost.

The Henry C. Johnson family has farmed between Selbyville and Roxana since the mid-1800s. This year, Keith Johnson said, they’re tilling about 800 acres, focusing on soybeans and feed corn to support their live hog operations. Any surplus will be sold to the poultry industry.

The corn was planted late, and soybeans are going in “fairly timely,” he explained. More soybeans will go in after wheat and barley are pulled.

Generally, feed corn is planted in May, with harvest from September to October, Johnson said. Bean plants planted in June will be harvested around November and the first frost.

Corn needs a certain number of degree-days, Johnson said, such as 100 days above a certain temperature. If June had a mysterious cold snap, the corn would pause until it reached the necessary growing temperature again.

“The late snows kind of … affected the prep of the ground, like applying the manures,” Johnson said. The ground needs time to work with those nutrients.

Although the Johnsons have stepped away from vegetable crops this year, Johnson has noticed that, locally, “Some of the vegetables have been coming off late, [but] I’m looking around and seeing that there’s a good supply.”

No concrete decisions have been made regarding reopening Johnson’s Country Market on Route 20 this year, he noted.

“Every year is totally different from the year before,” Johnson said. “If you don’t like this year, next year will be totally different. … The variables are changing.”

“I don’t think anybody’s hurting,” Bennett said. “Anything in greenhouses — I imagine they really struggled to keep those greenhouses heated.”

Adding insult to injury, the invasive stinkbugs hid indoors instead of dying out, Bennett reported.

“It makes things very interesting, which is part of the adventure of farming, but …you’re hoping to make a profit,” Johnson said. The uncertainty “can be scary.”

“Support your local farmers ’cause we sure need it,” Magee said.