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Too much of a good thing: Area farmers cope with losses from wet summer

  • Jessica Bryant, Fred Beddall and Ona Magee harvest lettuce at Old Friends Farm in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bill Gillen, owner of Sunset Farm in Amherst, spreads leaves over the fields to improve the soil for next year’s crops. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sunset Farm owner Bill Gillen spreads leaves over his Amherst fields to improve the soil for next year’s crops. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bill Gillen, owner of Sunset farm in Amherst, spreads leaves over the fields to improve the soil for next year’s crops. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bill Gillen, owner of Sunset Farm in Amherst, checks on what remains of his broccoli Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jessica Bryant, Fred Beddall and Ona Magee harvest lettuce at Old Friends Farm in Amherst last week. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bill Gillen, owner of Sunset Farm in Amherst, looks at a head of broccoli damaged by a wet season. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



For the Gazette
Monday, November 22, 2021

AMHERST — With record-breaking rainfall totals throughout the summer, local farmers are working hard to cope with losses of crops, time and sales.

The National Weather Service reported that total summer precipitation in the Amherst area was 18.38 inches in 2021, as opposed to the typical 12.7 inches. July was especially wet, with almost three times the normal amount of rain for that month, which is the second wettest on record for western Massachusetts.

As a result of these precipitation totals, local agriculture has struggled. Generally, tomatoes, peppers, squashes, and pumpkins were hit the hardest. Local farms reported losing a quarter, half and even all of certain crops.

Bill Gillen, co-owner of Sunset Farm in Amherst, has been farming since 1980. “We always get flooding,” he said. “The issue is that we have more flooding than normal.”

“Pumpkins, squashes and watermelons just died. They drowned. It was too wet,” Gillen said.

Crops like pumpkins, squashes and watermelons, according to Gillen, don’t grow well with “wet feet,” a condition in which plants grow with too much water at their roots. It mostly affects plants that are intolerant of wet growing conditions. When soils become saturated with water, available oxygen becomes displaced, leading to suffocation of the roots.

Sunset Farm has 29 50-year-old chestnut trees. “Chestnut trees hate wet feet,” said Gillen, “so we have fewer nuts.”

Muddy fields also affected Sunset Farm’s workers’ ability to even go into the fields.

“You can’t do things like pull a cultivator through,” Gillen said. “You can’t even walk through because you’ll get stuck and all the equipment will get stuck.”

Nevertheless, Gillen remained optimistic. Other crops, like leeks, broccoli and cabbage thrived during the rainy season.

Like other longtime farmers, Gillen has developed strategies to withstand unpredictable weather. Sunset Farm has certain fields that better serve crops that thrive under wet conditions, while other fields have better drainage and typically remain drier.

“Sometimes we put things in both times of environment. Like the okra,” said Gillen. “We’ll plant it in the dry spot and the wet spot, figuring we’ll win one way or another.”

Jeremy Barker Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, experienced similar challenges as Gillen this season. The farm lost lots of tomatoes, peppers, squash and eggplant to the excessive rain.

“We had a complete crop loss on winter squash,” said Barker Plotkin. Although Simple Gifts Farm doesn’t depend on winter squash, the effort, time and finances put into planting and caring for the plants were essentially for naught.

One of the most concerning problems caused by the rain, according to Barker Plotkin, is disease. When foliage and root systems remain wet for too long, diseases spread through bacterial and fungal pathogens. As a result, both quality and yields are reduced.

Simple Gifts Farm especially struggled with diseased tomato plants, which cracked and split. “We probably lost a good half of the tomato crop to the wet,” said Barker Plotkin.

He added that not only did they yield lower crop totals, but they had to spend time picking out the bad stuff while trying to harvest salvageable tomatoes.

Fortunately for customers, Simple Gifts was able to keep its store stocked with produce from the fields and from other farms. However, certain crops, like tomatoes, only yielded enough to stock the store, meaning the farm lost out on selling to the wholesale market. There was a financial impact having to spend time picking off the rotten crops.

“We were certainly impacted financially,” said Barker Plotkin. “There’s the costs of caring for the land, the cost to plant … in addition to the cost of buying (produce) from other farms.”

While the wet season has been difficult, the challenges it poses are not new. In 2018, farms faced similar challenges. With 59 inches of precipitation, 2018 was the second rainiest year in western Massachusetts to date. For comparison, precipitation so far this year totals about 49 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

A wetter climate is something farmers will have to adapt to in the coming years. Long-term climate trends and predictions say that, as a result of climate change, there is a trend toward a wetter climate in the Northeast.

“A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. That’s leading to the increase in total precipitation and heavier weather events,” said Michael Rawlins, associate director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Rawlins noted that the issue is not only increasing yearly totals but also increasing heavy precipitation events.

“Most locations (in the Northeast) have had four or five days with two inches of rain or greater,” Rawlins said. “Most years there are only two or three of those days.”

The issue with heavy rainfall events, according to Rawlins, is that water is unable to infiltrate the soil as it can more gradually over periods of precipitation. As a result, water saturates the soil and floats above it, leading to molds, diseases and other problems.

Nevertheless, farms are finding ways to adapt to a warmer climate.

Since around 2018, Simple Gifts Farm has been transitioning to a greatly reduced tillage system. Tillage refers to the agricultural preparation of soil by turning, digging, stirring and other methods. It kills weeds and prepares the soil for growing crops.

Rather than adhering to this traditional tillage system, Simple Gifts has begun to use heavy cover crop mulch and plastic mulch to kill weeds. According to Barker Plotkin, this does three things: First, it increases the organic matter in the soil so that it can absorb extra moisture to release when conditions are dryer; second, it reduces erosion by having a cover on the soil; and third, the plastic tarps kill vegetation to prepare the soil in wet or dry conditions.

“You really need the capacity to deal with wet and dry conditions,” said Barker Plotkin. The reduced tillage system is one way Simple Gifts is working toward that goal.

Over at Sunset Farm, Gillen and his volunteers use drainage systems to counteract over-saturation caused by rain.

“If you look at farmer’s almanacs and instructor manuals from the 1850s and ‘60s,” said Gillen, “you’ll see great discussions about laying drainage tile.”

A tile drainage system works by removing excess water from below the roots of the crop, helping to avoid over-saturation of soil. It is essentially a network of porous pipes that run underground. While tile drainage is a fairly old idea, its uses are increasingly applicable in today’s warming climate.

Another way farms in the area have adapted to uncertain climate conditions is by planting a diverse crop. “It is hugely beneficial to have diversified crops so any weather is good for something,” said Missy Bahret, co-owner of Old Friends Farm.

To help farms that have faced losses this year due to the excessive rain, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) is opening its Emergency Farm Fund in the fall to relieve some of the financial burdens. The decade-old fund offers zero-interest loans to farmers struggling after severe weather events and other emergencies.