WASHINGTON – After suffering through last year’s drought, farmer Bobby Hutchison was reminded this year that there can be too much of a good thing.
Excessive rains have cost Hutchison, who farms in Talbot and Caroline counties, two-thirds of his wheat crop, about half his barley crop and almost all of his pea crop this year. His corn and soybeans, which suffered in last summer’s withering heat, are faring better this year, but some low-lying pockets were drowned out.
“It’s been a year and a half of extremes,” Hutchison said. “We just never had a year like this before.”
In Talbot County, which typically gets 45.87 inches of rain a year, just 39.58 inches of rain fell in 2001 and 39.38 inches in 2002. Through August of this year, however, the county had already received 44.48 inches of rain.
State Climatologist Ken Pickering said it is hard to give statewide numbers because rainfall can vary so greatly, but that Maryland has had above-normal rain since last September, with October, November, February, May and June being particularly wet. In May, he said, more than 20 days of measurable rainfall kept the soil so wet that farmers could not get into the field to plant in many areas.
The rain has encouraged faster-than-normal growth of bacteria and fungi on crops. The result is poor hay, vegetable and small-grain production and about a two-week delay in harvests, said David Knopf, deputy state statistician with the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service.
“It’s not going to go down as one of our better years,” Knopf said.
But growers are optimistic about corn and soybean yields.
Knopf’s office projects corn production will reach 57.2 million bushels this year, which is 77 percent greater than last year’s production and 25 percent above the five-year average. Soybean production is expected to hit 14.9 million bushels, which is 37 percent greater than last year’s yield but still below the five-year average of 16.5 million bushels.
The effect of the excess rain on farms varies according to location and how well the soil drains, said Betsy Gallagher, an extension educator in Dorchester County. It also depends on the growth cycle of the crop and its susceptibility to diseases.
Maryland Agricultural Commission Chairman Henry Passi, who owns a small fruit farm in Cecil County, said he lost his entire cherry crop when the skins burst just days before they were ready to be picked and brown rot set in. A month earlier, in May, he lost about three-fourths of his strawberry crop to mold.
But it was a very good year for Passi’s blueberries and sweet corn. And it was a phenomenal year for his biggest crop, peaches, even if the colder-than-normal spring delayed growth for a couple of weeks.
Passi’s peach trees grew so thick that he had to trim down the branches so the sun could get to the fruit on the lower branches. That’s a big change from last year’s “bone-dry” drought that caused some trees to crack and produced a “dismal” corn crop, Passi said. Then, “even irrigation wasn’t enough” to counter the scalding sun and heat.
The overall effect of the rain on production — and income — remains to be seen.
“No one knows the production until the harvest is over,” said Michael Haigh, an assistant University of Maryland professor who is currently on leave as an economist at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission.
Hutchison will be in that wait-and-see mode for the next few weeks. The National Weather Service said it expects normal temperatures and rainfall for the next month.
That means Hutchison’s late soybeans still have a shot at getting the sunshine they need to fill out their pods.
Now that the rain has let up, Hutchison worries that his soybeans, which he planted four to six weeks later than they should have been, will stop growing before they “size up” if there is an early frost.
“We’re still sitting here with our fingers crossed,” he said.