Down on the farm: Soggy spring balances dry summer

Photo by Scooter MacMillan
Tom Kenyon of Aurora Farms and Nitty Gritty Grains harvests wheat on 18 acres they lease from Meach Cove Farms in south Shelburne.

Staff Writer

A farming season that started late looks like it may be back on schedule, but as always that depends on the vagaries of summer weather.

In mid-June, many local farmers said their crops were two to three weeks behind. Many said that it was the wettest spring in memory.

Now, with more than a month of mostly dry weather, things are looking OK, but not great.

In mid-June David Kenyon of Aurora Farms and Nitty Gritty Grains in Charlotte said that the jury was still out on winter wheat. On Saturday, July 27, his father Tom Kenyon, who farms with his son, was harvesting hard red winter wheat on 18 acres they lease at Meach Cove Farms in South Shelburne.

As he watched tan to reddish-brown wheat kernels being harvested by his combine and sprayed into the grain tank, he said that in a good year they could hope to get 45-50 bushels of wheat per acre from these fields. He predicted this year they’d probably get around 10 bushels on this field.

The wheat plants had been competing with a lot of tall grasses that thrived in the wet fields.

Half the wheat harvest

Tom Kenyon said they grow about 100 acres of wheat and he suspects that in total he’ll harvest about half of what he should have.

Their corn was planted late but is catching up to where it would usually be by this time, in part, because of the warm, dry weather. Like most area farmers, the Kenyons’ hay crop was planted late, but it’s coming in well. 

Kenyon has a humorous homily about those who’ve chosen the agricultural profession: “All we are is gamblers with a farming problem.”

Tom Kenyon wanted to encourage readers not to waste food, even though his living depends on people buying food. “People work awful hard to produce it,” he said.

John Belter of the Belter Family Partnership farm in South Burlington said the wet spring had pushed their schedule back about three weeks, but “it feels like we’ve gained back some of that.”

They plant 340 acres of corn for feed every year, except this year when about 20 acres didn’t get planted. However, the corn that did get planted was 6-7 feet tall last week.

“It’s going to be over 8 or 9 feet. It’s coming in good. It’s got good color so we can tell it’s got good nutrients.”

“Most of the trouble is down south in Addison County,” Belter said. “There’s some farms in Addison County that never got their corn planted.” 

Belter said they had planted a “fair amount” of alfalfa that looks mediocre. He thinks he may get about 80 percent of what he’d expected.

Hoop houses help

Cathy Wells’ Unity Farm is not as affected by the weather as many farmers since most of her farming is focused in four hoop houses.

The extended cool weather in the spring helped her winter vegetables like kale, spinach and winter lettuce, which have lasted longer than usual. 

A big part of Wells’ farm off Route 7 south of Charlotte is cut flowers, which are sold as market bouquets at grocery stores and florists. She also has a flower CSA and a do it yourself program where people can cut and fill a bucket with flowers. This offering has been popular with people working on weddings. 

“Because of the cool spring the flowers were pushed back a little bit. But we don’t have any issues; we’re pretty much where we would be normally,” Wells said.

She also has four acres of organic hay to feed her horses. She usually cuts the hay in late June. In late July it still hadn’t been cut. “We’re holding our breath because it was so wet. We need two to three days of sun before we square bale it,” said Wells.

You don’t want to square bale wet hay because it can spontaneously combust, she said.

Lucky year in Hinesburg

David Zuckerman, Vermont’s lieutenant governor who manages Full Moon Farm in Hinesburg with his wife Rachel Nevitt, said that it’s been a good year.

“We’ve been very lucky to get two rains that other people in this area didn’t get in the dry summer, after a wet start,” said Zuckerman. “We just picked our first harvest of sweet corn, 10 days to two weeks later than usual.”

He said, “The season is starting to turn very lucky. We’re in a lucky spot.”

Zuckerman said he’d seen some corn while driving in South Burlington that looked like it was “spiking.” Spiking is when the corn leaves are big and broad and start to curl and loose some of their luster. It’s caused by drought.

Last year was tough for Full Moon Farm, Zuckerman said, because of the long dry spell. “I can irrigate everything I grow, but last year my ponds ran out.”

He’s optimistic this year will turn out well because, even if the weather turns dry, he’s added another pond.

Like many other farmers in Vermont, this year he’s trying something new — hemp. He’s just growing a half an acre, although he knows a lot of farmers “jumped into it big time.” Zuckerman said he preferred “dabbling” in it this first year to see how it goes. He’s worried that there may be a big glut of hemp.

It’s already proving to be labor intensive. The plants require a lot of trimming or they get bushy and can mold. And the hemp grows fast.

“It grows like a weed,” said Zuckerman.

After more than 45 years of farming, Belter has this perspective on the weather: “It’s either too wet or too dry. Some years it’s both.”

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