ADDISON COUNTY — As farmers across the nation hope for rain to end the worst drought since 1956, Addison County farmers are counting their blessings.
“So far it’s been a pretty good growing season, other than extreme heat and a little on the dry side,” said Hank Bissell of Lewis Creek Farm in Starksboro.
For Bissell, this year has prompted him to use his irrigation system more than usual due to prolonged stretches of warm weather with no rain, but he said vegetable yields have been good compared to those in last year’s wet weather.
“Last year was probably the worst year we’ve had in 30 years,” he said.
This year, he said, summer vegetables are doing well in the heat — zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers and tomatoes especially.
“We’re off to a good start,” he said. “We’re hoping for (weather that is) not too dry, not too wet.”
Jon Satz, who grows vegetables and oilseed at Woods Market Garden in Brandon, said the warm, dry weather this spring also allowed him to start planting earlier than expected.
“It was nice and easy to work early, which helps spread out the work a little,” he said.
Satz said strawberries and sweet corn harvests have been strong this year, and with irrigated fields, he hasn’t been troubled by lack of rain.
As with every year, though, weather events vary from farm to farm. Bissell and Satz both said their fields weren’t hit by hail or wind storms, which have plagued other farms around the county.
May also brought a storm that dropped several inches of rain over just a few hours — in Salisbury, Hank Nop said about four inches fell on the corn fields at Nop Brothers and Sons, washing away much of the early planting.
The dairy farm grows about 1,000 acres of corn each year, and while the family replanted the corn, Nop said some of the corn is now behind schedule.
“Some of it is pretty good, but some of it is not so good.”
The heat and dry weather of the past weeks has also been difficult for some of the fields, said Nop. While the soil in Forest Dale is sandier and handles weather extremes, the clay fields in Salisbury dried up quickly. Last week’s rains helped to offset the parched conditions.
Ted Foster, co-owner of Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury, agreed. He said corn planted in the lighter soils has been doing well, but not as well in clay soils. Foster also said it’s been difficult — and expensive — to get synthetic fertilizers for the corn this year due to nitrogen shortages.
“We always put manure on our fields, too, but they benefit from that boost of nitrogen,” he said.
Nitrogen isn’t all that’s expensive right now. With difficult growing conditions out West, feed prices are high, and Nop is hoping for a strong corn harvest to carry the cows into the winter. Right now, he estimates yields will be at about 75 percent of normal.
But he said the farm will just have to make do with lower yields.
“We can complain, but it doesn’t do much good,” he said.
For Bill Suhr, owner of Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, the hot, dry weather has had its positives. He said he is still worried about drought conditions — his Shoreham orchard got very little rain last week, though some of the young trees he is growing in Bridport got a much-needed inch of precipitation. But at this stage in the development of the apples, less water available means a more concentrated fruit flavor.
“This could be a very flavorful crop,” said Suhr.
He said he expects the apples to ripen one to two weeks early, and a crop of peaches is also nearly ready to eat.
The season has not been without its losses, though. Suhr estimated the orchard lost about 10,000 bushels during three nights of frost in late April that killed apple blossoms, which had bloomed early due to warm spring weather. He normally brings in more than 70,000 bushels each season.
Still, with three nights of such cold weather losses could have been far worse.
“When you go below 25 degrees, you risk 90 percent kill,” Suhr said, adding they fared much better than expected.
Eric Boire, farm manager at Sunrise Orchards, agreed. He said some of the trees at lower elevation lost blossoms, but that the farm’s losses weren’t major compared to many other Eastern apple growers, including those in New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Suhr agreed, adding that Michigan apple growers are estimating the loss of about 90 percent of their crop.
Boire said he’s hoping for a good year after a run of major apple losses — in 2009, Sunrise lost most of its crop to hail, in 2010 it was frost, and in 2011 it was hail again. This year, he said, some of the farm’s apple pickers will be arriving early in anticipation of an earlier crop, which he expects may be a week ahead. Still, he said it’s too early in the season to predict outcomes.
“You don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve picked it,” he said, “but we’re cautiously optimistic.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.