Lynwood Heagy has seen his share of dry and wet growing seasons. As an area crop farmer for the past 26 years, Heagy said this summer has been one of the wettest he can remember.
“They say that this has been one of the wettest summers on record,” he said. “This region generally has tight subsoil, so rain has always been an area of concern for us farmers. It’s all about that balance of rainfall that you hope to get each year around this time.”
Heagy’s assessment of seasonal weather patterns is shared by experts. According to AccuWeather meteorologist Alyson Hoegg, Northwestern Pennsylvania has experienced above-average rainfall since June 1. Observation stations in Franklin and Meadville have reported 10 inches and 7 inches of rain during that time frame, respectively, up from a 5 1/2 inch historical average for the region.
Heagy said most crops don’t respond well to what he calls “wet feet,” in reference to oversaturated soil. The lack of percolation, he said, leads to patterns of uneven growth across his farm.
“I have stalks of corn that are 10 inches high and 4 feet high in the same field,” Heagy said. “The petrography of the ground helps guide the water as it disperses within a field. Whenever it rains a lot, and the soil doesn’t have a chance to dry out, you start getting uneven growth. That’s why I have some fields that aren’t as affected by it as others.”
Heagy said understanding the grade and elevations of the earth are keys to staying ahead of the weather. Even so, he acknowledges that minor increases in rainfall can have damaging long term effects on a farmer’s business.
“I am going to feel the impact of this for two years,” Heagy said. “Crops don’t like wet feet because it takes important elements like nitrogen and oxygen out of the soil. That’s when you start to lose quality on top of quantity. That’ll for sure impact my profits next year because of a reduced yield from the previous season.”
Weather patterns prior to this year’s growing season may also have played an important factor in reduced yields. Joel Hunter, an agronomist for the Penn State Agriculture Extension in Meadville, believes that conditions leading up to the summer months put area farmers at an early disadvantage.
“When we’re overcast and experiencing a lot of rain in spring, a lot of the time the soil and ground haven’t had the chance to be warmed up by natural sunlight,” Hunter said. “When the soil is already on the colder side, plants struggle to produce the necessary sugars and carbs in order to grow properly. This all can make crops less resistant to bacteria and fungi that lead to further stunted growth.”
Hunter has worked as an agronomist for 25 years. In that time, he said he struggles to remember a summer where we’ve received this much rainfall up to this point in the summer. He shares the same sentiment of Heagy, believing that timing is truly everything when it comes to producing a quality yield when the elements are working against you.
“There’s not much you can really do about mother nature,” Hunter said. “When you get weather like this, just relentless rainfall it seems, it can be tough to stay ahead. Farmers are pretty darn good at knowing what’s best to take care of their own fields, but that challenge is always looming.”
Hunter pointed out that Pennsylvania soil is relatively young, as it was formed by glacial activities of 100,000 years ago. Soil variability, and its ability to allow water to percolate while replenishing a field’s aquifers, are key in yielding quality crop at a high quantity, he said. According to Hunter, Pennsylvania soil is typically well-suited for high yields because of high variability.
Water does not always disperse evenly, however. Some of Heagy’s fields have become oversaturated to the point that small pools of water have begun to form on the surface. He said these pools are referred to as wet weather springs, and form as a result of the soil not being able to effectively disperse water because it doesn’t have the chance to dry out.
“As the water percolates throughout the soil, it can run into clay pans and spread out onto the surface,” Heagy said. “The constant rain we’ve been receiving has added some extra work for us in redirecting the spring water so it can dispersed evenly throughout the field. It adds extra expense to business, but it’s something that has to be done in order to make sure we’re getting the best yield possible.”
Heagy said digging additional trenches and piping up the water so it can be used elsewhere are good ways to manage the issue.
Although heavy rainfall has put a strain on area farmers, high quality yields remain possible. Hunter said that depending on when the first frost hits, it could allow farmers more time to grow their crops and store them properly so they keep well during the winter.
“Everything is about timing in this industry,” he said. “We would have liked to have seen corn be planted earlier in May, but many farmers couldn’t get started until June this year. A later frost would help give more time for a good crop. You always hear the old timers say ‘Corn that’s knee high by the Fourth of July’ and how that means it’s a good year. If you look around the area now, there’s very little corn that’s knee high.”
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