Sodden skies torment farmers

A horse grazes on what’s left of its pasture, along Elm Street in Barton, just as Tuesday’s downpour subsides.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

A horse grazes on what’s left of its pasture, along Elm Street in Barton, just as Tuesday’s downpour subsides. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Tena Starr

“It’s kind of a nightmare.”

That’s how Brandon Tanner of Glover described this summer’s weather and his own efforts to put in hay for his dairy cows.

“It’s one of those things where you’re forced this year to get what you can get when you can get it,” Mr. Tanner said.  “There’s no planning, no helping other people.  It’s sort of you do yours when you can do it the best you can.”

He said he managed to get his first cut, as usual, back in May.

“Soon as I got done haying we had a snowstorm,” he said.

Mr. Tanner isn’t alone in his frustration with this year’s odd weather and, lately, relentless rain.

Farmers, strawberry growers, boaters, anyone who enjoys a day at the beach — they’re all likely to say “Enough already.”

Although Mother Nature isn’t.

There’s some hope that by the end of the week the stubborn weather pattern will break down, permitting a couple of consecutive rain-free days by the weekend, said meteorologist Lawrence Hayes at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury.

The problem, he said, is that Vermont has been stuck in between two upper level features involving a serpentine jet stream that moves northward.  The sources of its air is the Gulf of Mexico and the southeast coast, hence the subtropical air in Vermont.

Also, “the air has been so copiously humid (dew points around 70) that any shower that forms is risk of generating at least moderately heavy rain,” Mr. Hayes said by e-mail.

The result of all this has been a lot more rain than usual, as well as more rainy days, in both May and June.

According to the Chronicle’s weather records (which record weather in West Glover) precipitation in May was 7.88 inches — almost double the long-term average of 4.03 inches, and exceeded only in May of 2011.  It also snowed in May.  The Chronicle’s weather records go back to 1987.

In June, there was some rain in West Glover on 21 out of 30 days.  It added up to 6.23 inches, well above the long-term average for June of 4.14 inches.

In St. Johnsbury the 14-day stretch of measurable rainfall from June 23 to July 7 was the longest consecutive day stretch there during the warm weather season, meaning May through October, Mr. Hayes said.

For most, the soggy weather is simply an annoyance.  But for some, it has economic consequences, as well.

Peak View Berry Farm in Orleans doesn’t have any strawberries at all this year, although it’s not due to the wet weather that’s plagued so many strawberry growers in Vermont.

“We lost our strawberries in January when the thaw came and then it got so cold in February,” said Michelle Bonin, who owns the farm with her husband, Marcel.  “The thaw literally pushed all of our plants out of the ground.  That was something we’d never seen.”

The Bonins have since put in 13,000 new plants and are hoping to have a crop from the ever bearers in October.  But even tending the new plants is tough with the wet weather.

“A few days ago I wanted to cultivate my strawberries and couldn’t because of the mud,” Marcel Bonin said.  “The ground is saturated.  I’d have a mess.”

In Westfield, Gerard Croizet at Berry Creek Farm said he’s lost 20 to 25 percent of his strawberries to the weather, mold in particular.

The berries are big, although softer than usual, and the yield has been good, he said.

It could be a lot worse, though, Mr. Croizet said.  “I know some people lost most everything.”

“I’m not depressed,” he added.

Both the Croizets and the Bonins grow vegetables as well as berries, and say that weeding is a big problem with their fields so wet.  And while some crops are doing well in the subtropical weather, others are struggling.

Mr. Croizet said he’s worried about disease at this point, particularly late blight, which might make an early appearance due to the moisture.

“I don’t remember nonstop rain like that,” he said.

“I think it’s extraordinary, I think it’s quite dramatic for the whole area,” Mr. Bonin said about the unusually long stretch of rainy days.

He said his Orleans farm stand is usually open by the last week in June.  It’s not this year.  “I don’t have anything to put in it,” Mr. Bonin said.

For dairy farmers, the persistent rain not only makes it hard to make any hay, but also the quality suffers.

Most farmers make round bales these days — those plastic wrapped bales that resemble giant marshmallows.  It takes a comparatively short stretch of dry weather to make a round bale as opposed to a square one, but this summer has daunted even those attempts.

It takes at least a couple of days to “put up something that’s not going to be an ice cube,” Mr. Tanner said.

If the hay is too wet, it will be frozen solid come winter when the farmer wants to feed it to his animals, he said.

That’s one problem.  Another is that some fields are so wet farmers can’t even get on them to hay.

And yet another is that grass, especially orchard grass, declines in quality — meaning it loses protein — once it begins to head out.

“You can always supplement grains in order to make up what you lost on your grass, but especially the past three years, that’s been sort of unaffordable,” Mr. Tanner said.

He said that last year, a classic summer, he squeezed in five cuts of hay.  “This year, so far, I’ve done one.  I’ll be lucky if I get three.”

Evan Perron isn’t overly worried about the weather, even though he’s one of the few who still makes square bales.

“The hay I cut will be just fine, for horses, ponies, sheep, it will still be 10-12 percent…it’s nothing you could turn into milk and survive,” he said.

Mr. Perron said that when he was a kid it was common to wait until after July 4 to start haying.  “There was a time we might not have thought much of it,” he said about the long rainy stretch.  “We’d just be a week late.”

But now that people try to get 20 or 30 percent protein from their hay, “it’s a pretty big deal,” he said.

“I don’t think I ever recall such a soggy streak as this one.”

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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