WASHINGTON – The rains that farmer Lilace Martin had been hoping for all summer have finally fallen. But she’s not happy.
“We’re not saying anything against the rain,” she laughed. “But this week, we got nothing done.”
Although the recent rainfall has eased the months-long drought that most Maryland farmers are grappling with, it has come too late to help ailing crops and has disrupted the fall harvest and planting.
“If we’d gotten some of this back in June or July, it would have just been wonderful,” said Martin, who has been farming in Harford County for nearly 75 years. “Now, we just can’t get in the field.”
Only about three days were suitable for fieldwork last week, said David Knopf, a statistician with the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service. The rest of the week, he said, farmers were hampered not only by rain, but by fields too muddy to use their equipment in.
Martin said that over the last three weeks, she and her sons have worked a total of only seven days in the fields, two of them Sundays. They have harvested about a quarter of their soybean crop — far behind the usual schedule.
Maryland farmers normally have 70 percent of their soybeans harvested by mid-November, but this year they have harvested only 40 percent and are about one week behind on planting winter wheat, Knopf said.
“We’re glad of this rain given our summer, but it has a downside too,” he said. “We need to string some rain-free days together here.”
Knopf said it should take three to four weeks to finish the harvest and planting.
“The damage has already been done,” he said. “Whatever additional rain we can get will certainly hurt at this point.”
More rain could cause soybeans to burst or grow mold, reducing their value, Martin said.
While the steady rains have hurt farmers with late-season crops, they have helped livestock farmers. The rainfall has revitalized pastureland and refilled ponds, many of which had dried up or reached record-low levels by the end of the summer.
Groundwater levels have started to rebound as well. Three of the 19 wells the U.S. Geological Survey uses to gauge groundwater levels in Maryland showed record lows for the month of October, but that was less than the nine that had record monthly lows in September.
“Since mid-September, the rain has been slow and steady-exactly the kind of water you need to recharge,” said USGS hydrologist Wendy McPherson.
The rains will recharge the soil for next year, but only if they continue for the rest of the winter. Farmers like Martin are hoping that the rains will come — but that they hold off for a few more weeks.
“We’re usually done (harvesting) by Thanksgiving, but we’re not going to make it this year,” Martin said. “At this rate, it’s going to be Christmas.”