April showers ... challenge farmers

Last Friday's storm resulted in several fallen trees, including one which toppled over in Taylor Park in Orange and damaged a lamp post. 

With nearly 69 inches of rainfall, last year was Orange County’s rainiest year in 77 years of official record-keeping. And as you may have noticed, the slog has continued. Rainfall to date in 2019 is two inches above average. 

According to Greg Lillard, farm manager at the Northern Piedmont Center in Orange, nearly 14 inches of rain had fallen this year as of Monday morning. The 78-year average for the same period is slightly below 12 inches.

Ted Haberland of Piedmont Grain and Cattle, Inc., calls farmers “eternal optimists,” but the rainy start to the year is testing his patience, even if his optimism remains intact.

“We’re a little behind on our planting,” the Somerset farmer said of his 1,600 acres of row crops, which include corn, wheat and soybeans.

By his estimation, “Every Friday it rains. That’s true going all the way back to March.”

He was right about last Friday. A pounding rain hit the county in the early afternoon, and there were reports of a possible funnel cloud sighting in Locust Grove.

A tree toppled over in Taylor Park in Orange and damaged a lamp post. Orange Police Chief Jim Fenwick said a tree fell across Main Street near Preddy Funeral Home and took down power lines with it, and another line-busting tree landed on a vehicle parked at a property on Williams Drive.

Courtney Wesner, Orange County’s associate extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, has the optimistic farmer’s spirit. Now that the soil is warming up, she said spring planting should be about on schedule if rain doesn’t interfere.

Wesner said water tables are so high that before the current planting season she had jokingly imagined the benefits of a long dry spell: “Coming into this year, if it stopped raining and didn’t rain one more drop, we would have a really good cutting of hay.”

Last year’s relentless rain and mud meant local farmers “didn’t get those nice windows [of time] to cut hay when it was at its proper maturity,” she explained.

As a result, Wesner said the quality of the hay was often poor. Hay put up wet was subject to mold. Hay harvested later than usual didn’t contain the nutrient value that livestock needed.

And boy, did the animals need that hay.

Garret Chambers of Brooke Farms LLC in Locust Grove said he didn’t have as many hay cuttings last year as usual due to the uncooperative weather.

“Hay was outrageous this winter. People were very worried about keeping animals fed,” he said.

Although it was not a severely cold winter, he said livestock expend a lot of energy staying warm on chilly, rainy days: “Cows needed more hay because they were constantly wet. The feed intake was probably 20 percent more than in a normal year.”

He said he has supplemented hay with grain to make sure his cattle are well fed.

As for this spring, the first cutting of hay looks to be “half as tall as it normally is,” he said. “We couldn’t get fertilizer on the field because it was wet. Everything was pushed back because of the amount of rain we had.”

Chambers said a drought usually ends after a year, but the heavy rains and mud made it so hard to get equipment in and out of the fields that he will be living with the resulting ruts for “the next four to five years.”

Haberland said he lost 200 acres of corn last year due to June floods that wiped out plantings on his river bottom land. It wasn’t just the rain, however, that caused trouble. He said his soybean crop suffered from a preponderance of cloudy days.

In consultation with plant physiologists at Virginia Tech and elsewhere, Haberland determined that his plants weren’t getting enough “radiant energy” to produce the number of pods they normally would. It turns out the bright sunny days that make everybody smile are critical to the health and growth of the beans.

Andy Hutchison of Somerset Seed and Sod, Inc., said all the heavy rain has been devastating to his business: “It’s been about the worst year possible for the Virginia turf grass industry as a whole.”

He said last year’s floods wiped out a lot of growing sod, and the pervasive rain and cloudiness last September continued the destructive pattern. Fungus destroyed seedlings, and overall fall growth was below his expectations.

“We lost 40 acres of sod that would be harvestable right now. Our inventory is very low,” Hutchison said, noting that sod inventory is low across the state.

Area farmers draw on a wealth of experience and scientific expertise when they plant their crops and tend to their livestock, and Kim Dix of the Orange-Madison Co-op said she knows many who consult the farmer’s almanac.

But like countless generations before them, farmers look to the skies every day. If the weather’s bad, they adjust as best they can.

“They take it in stride,” Dix said. “They have to.”

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