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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 07/ 9/2009

Local Farms Adjust to Challenges of Recent Rains

By Ann Posegate

Wx and the City

* Full Forecast | Does El Nino Mean Fewer Hurricanes? *

Produce from a local garden. By Kristian Whipple.

After a visit to a water-logged community garden in my D.C. neighborhood a few weeks ago -- that has since dried out fairly well -- I began to wonder how local farms were faring after yet another wet spring and early summer. From April through June, Dulles Airport received 21.07 inches of rainfall -- the second highest total on record for the three-month period. National and BWI airports received 18.13 and 19.74 inches, respectively.

I recently spoke with the managers of Ecosystem Farm in Accokeek, Md., just south of the Beltway, and Colchester Farm in Georgetown, Md., on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Both are Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms and serve 70-150 local families.

The managers, Michael Snow of Ecosystem Farm and Theresa Mycek of Colchester Farm, said that consistent rains from April through June brought challenges for the farms, including weed overgrowth, lost crops and changes in planting schedules.

Keep reading for more on how these local farms have handled this year's rains...

Weeds seem to be the biggest problem. On Colchester Farm, the farmers were not able to weed effectively because the ground remained saturated for such a long period of time this season. The nuisance plants have become so overgrown that the staff often has to pull them up by hand, which can also pull up the crops beneath them. "Weeding is usually easy when the weeds are small," Mycek said.

Both farms use sustainable agriculture practices and provide organic produce, leaving their vegetables, the farms and their surrounding environment healthier. However, this means that, rather than resorting to herbicides and insecticides, the farmers must use extra care, creativity and knowledge when dealing with weeds and pests. Some vegetables, such as potatoes, are out-competed for space and nutrients by weeds, while others, such as bean and tomato plants, are not as affected.

Sustainable farms often use low-till or no-till practices, since too much tilling (working the land by ploughing, hoeing, etc.) can decrease fertility of the soil, reduce its permeability to water and lead to increased erosion. Still, depending on conditions, some tillage may be necessary -- for example, when adding compost to the soil. Snow and Mycek were not able to till this spring because of the saturated soil. Working the soil when it was wet would have changed its consistency and negatively affected its productivity for the rest of the season.

Other sustainable agriculture techniques include rotating crops, planting cover crops to protect the soil and control erosion, and adding organic matter to the soil to increase water infiltration and decrease runoff. These techniques could give farmers an advantage as the climate continues to change and the region experiences more severe weather events. "As farmers, dealing with weather extremes is the new big issue," said Snow.

Ecosystem Farm is behind schedule so far this year. Snow explained that some plants that were planted early in the spring -- potatoes, onions and greens -- were resilient to the heavy and consistent rainfall. Other early-season vegetables drowned, and some were just water-logged and have dried out over the past few weeks. Some successful peppers and tomatoes were planted a few weeks ago and others have been growing well in raised beds.

Ecosystem Farm, however, is an extreme case. Snow said it is more vulnerable to wet weather than most other area farms because it's an experimental farm, sitting along the Potomac River in poorly drained soil. After having been farmed for several hundred years, the land was made part of Piscataway National Park and is managed by the nonprofit Accokeek Foundation. The farm now practices innovative farming techniques because of its unique conditions and serves about 70 local families each season. In a metropolitan area where development is occurring on land with good, farmable soil, Ecosystem Farm serves as a reminder that "while marginal land can be made productive, it is especially important to protect the good soils that do exist so they can be used as agricultural areas," Snow said.

Colchester Farm is doing well according to Mycek, though they have had to make some planting adjustments and also deal with weeds. "We use succession planting [new vegetables are planted as soon as others are harvested], so we haven't really had a problem," she said. The farm has been able to adapt to the spring and summer rainfall by waiting to plant water-sensitive crops, or skipping them altogether and planting hardier vegetables instead. The farm plans on producing over 50 different vegetables this year, not including varieties within some vegetable crops.

The last time Colchester Farm lost crops was after the severe rainfall of June 2006, when the carrot and beet field was flooded and standing water caused the root vegetables to rot. They have not lost any crops this year -- April-through-June rainfall was consistent and saturated the soil, but was not as heavy as in 2006 and has been followed by plenty of sun. Meanwhile, the nearby corn fields are reaping the benefits of the spring rain and are much taller than usual.

Last year was also difficult for both farms, due to record-breaking spring rainfall that was followed by a drought that lasted through the fall season.

Both farmers said they can be hesitant to trust weather forecasts because of the uncertainty. "Weather can be very localized around here. For example, rain may come down in Fort Washington, just a few miles north of us, and miss us completely here in Accokeek," explained Snow. Mycek relies on 24-to-48-hour forecasts she finds online, but does not usually rely on extended forecasts. She finds it more helpful when meteorologists discuss overall trends that are expected over the coming week or two.

After speaking with Snow and Mycek and visiting the community garden, I was reminded of how connected farmers are to weather, more than most city-dwellers. Not only am I thankful for their hard work and dedication to growing fresh produce for our region, I am also grateful for their ability to adapt to the mid-Atlantic's unpredictable weather.

By Ann Posegate  | July 9, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Posegate, Wx and the City  
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Just a reminder...that TOO MUCH rain can be as bad for crops as too little...the soil gets waterlogged and the crops' roots can't breathe. In addition, as pointed out above, root crops may rot in place, and blights, rusts and smuts, among other fungi, tend to take over. [It can also get TOO WET even for fungi, and at that point bacteria find conditions optimum.] I suspect the "much-needed rain" crowd is somewhat unaware of this, though I think that AugustaJim knows that farmers need optimum moisture or "field capacity" conditions for best crop growth.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 9, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

We always hear how challenging drought is for farmers; it's good to read about the challenge of excess rainfall. After reading this I'm ready for a trip to the farmer's market!

Posted by: --sg | July 9, 2009 8:39 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Posegate, you wrote, "I began to wonder how local farms were faring after yet another wet spring and early summer."

Why was it an early summer? What made it so?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 10, 2009 12:55 AM | Report abuse

"...but does not usually rely on extended forecasts due to their uncertainty."

Indeed there is uncertainty in forecasts, but the degree varies from case to case. Moreover, the uncertainty can be quantified probabilistically in terms that can enhance the farmers bottom line. For example, plant or do not plant if the probability of rainfall is greater (less than) X% AND probability that temperature will be higher (lower) than Y%. X and Y can be determined for a specific crop in a way that ensures maximum gain (minimum loss) over the long term

I can be contacted directly if Mr Snow or anyone else wants further information.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | July 10, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Mr Q. - In the phrase "wet spring and early summer," I was referring to a wet spring and a wet start to the summer. I hope that clarifies. I can see how that language could be confusing.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | July 10, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Posegate, thank you for your response.

Yes, it is confusing when you write "early summer" when what you mean is "a wet start to the summer". Thanks for the clarification.

Some communities are already complaining about the complete lack of summer this year. (Which seems like a premature complaint to me.) But when you wrote "early summer" that caught my attention as it seemed completely out of sync with the all other accounts/reports.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 10, 2009 9:47 PM | Report abuse

New Yorkers ask, "Wherefort art thou, summer?"

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 14, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

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