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This summer’s consistent precipitation has led to blighted fruits, drowned crops and eroded fields.
Photo courtesy of Clem Swift
The lettuce crop at Riverstone Organic Farm on the Little River in Floyd County has been flooded by heavy rains the past few weeks.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
David Gibbs, who owns Virginia Mountain Vineyards in Fincastle, sprays his grape vines Tuesday afternoon in an attempt to battle blight and mold problems linked to the unusual amount of rainfall in the area this year.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
The sprayer Gibbs uses at his vineyard distributes a mixture of fertilizer and pesticides. Gibbs estimates that his labor costs this growing season are 50 percent higher than usual.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Farmers in Southwest Virginia prayed for rain last summer during the worst heat wave in more than 60 years. A year later, their prayers have been answered — but now they face too much of a good thing.
Roanoke already has seen more than 33 inches of rain this year. The downpours show little sign of stopping, with more showers on the horizon in the next few days. Heavy rains can be just as detrimental as prolonged droughts to certain plants, and this summer’s consistent precipitation has led to blighted fruits, drowned crops and eroded fields.
David Gibbs, co-owner of Virginia Mountain Vineyards in Fincastle, faces a problem unique to growers of berries and vine plants: His fields are growing too well.
“There’s been a tremendous explosion of growth. You get such a dense growth of canopy that the plants start falling over on themselves,” he said. “I first planted here in 1998, and this is the most challenging year we’ve ever had.”
Gibbs said grapes thrive when water is plentiful. Heavy rains jump-start the vines’ growing process, which is beneficial in the early spring. But once a vine bears fruit, Gibbs said, dry conditions help concentrate flavor and keep canopies manageable. This late in the season, extra water is less of a boon and more of a burden.
“We’re spending a lot more hours out there cutting stuff back and opening it up. The leaves in the canopy are so dense and so thick,” he said. “We’ve been out there in the pouring rain trying to get it cut back and keep it healthy. You can’t work as efficiently. It’s been a tremendous challenge.”
Mold and mildew thrive in soggy conditions, so vineyard workers have been spraying the fields with preventive chemicals during breaks in the downpours. Between cutting canopies and managing mildew, Gibbs said the vineyard’s labor costs have spiked in recent weeks.
“The Virginia climate is so humid. We’re always fighting mold. We’re spraying a lot more, so it’s very expensive. And the labor costs are probably 50 percent more than they’ve been,” he said.
Johnson’s Orchard in Bedford County also faces mold concerns, said owner Danny Johnson. The orchard’s apple and peach trees have been battling a bacterium called fire blight. The arboreal disease is easily spread, partly because insects can carry it from tree to tree. Fire blight withers fruits before spreading up the limb and through the rest of the tree.
Humid, rainy conditions made this year’s spread of fire blight one of the most severe in recent memory, Johnson said.
“The season was just perfect for fire blight. This is the worst year I’ve seen of that since probably the middle 1950s,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you. I’m 74 years old. I’ve lived on this farm all of my life. And I’ve never seen a season like this.”
Last week’s heavy rain created more problems than blight for Johnson’s Orchard. He said muddy conditions have made it difficult for farmers to get equipment into the fields.
“We’re not on real level land all the time, so we have equipment sliding on down the hill,” he said. “And the guy who does my hay couldn’t even get his truck out of the mud.”
Getting stuck in the mud will not be the only problem hay and wheat farmers face this year. Andy Allen, Craig County’s agriculture agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, said heavy rainfall just before harvest decreases grain crop quality and creates other difficulties for farmers.
“That wheat that would be sold for human consumption will now probably be sold for animal consumption,” he said. “There was also probably a little bit of erosion in the fields. … And the rain was keeping the bees from pollinating the blooms on squash, so those crops might take a hit, too.”
Floyd County’s farmers were among the hardest hit by last week’s rainfall, said Tenley Weaver, owner of Full Circle Organic Farm and Good Food-Good People. Through Good Food-Good People, Weaver distributes local farm products from more than 50 independent growers. She said farmers reported that the area’s already saturated soil created drainage problems. Fields flooded and crops were swept away.
“Some growers up here had drowned potatoes floating off and watermelons washing by,” she said. “It’s been demoralizing. This pulled the local economy out from under a lot of vegetable growers.”
Still, consumers should not expect prices to soar. Weaver said many local fruit growers were on pace for a surplus this year, so the fruits lost to blight and flood damage may not create a shortage in the area.
“In this area, the growers were looking at a very large peach and apple crop. So prices were going to be lower because of the surplus. This rain may bring prices back to median,” she said.
“You count on some crops doing well and others doing not so well, depending on the year,” she said. “But if you have a lot of irons in the fire, you’re in a better place.”
Weaver said she grows some of her crops inside greenhouses. Cherry tomato growers especially benefit from a more controlled environment like this. She said operating out of terraced fields and raised beds puts more power in the hands of the farmer.
Those least affected by severe weather have diversified both the types of crops they grow and the farming methods they use, she said.
“The more unpredictable the weather gets, the more we growers need different techniques and technology,” she said. “We cannot do anything to stop the water from coming from above, so we need to protect ourselves.”
Weather JournalRain is here; no snow