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Record rains put sunflower selfies, summer watermelons at risk

Joe Bartenfelder has been getting plenty of compliments on his produce from customers at the Baltimore Farmers’ Market this summer. Little do they know what a tough season it has been, he says.

“They say, ‘Everything looks good because I guess you’ve had a lot of rain!’ ” said Bartenfelder, a family farmer and Maryland’s agriculture secretary. “The problem is you’re not seeing everything that’s getting ruined.”

Record July rainfall — only the latest stressor in a season of erratic and extreme weather — is crimping Maryland’s agricultural output just as the heart of the growing season arrives.

The wet weather is causing tomatoes to crack and sunflower seedlings to rot. Watermelons might sound like they’d love a deluge, but some farmers have lost their entire crops of the summer picnic treat to the recent floods, Bartenfelder said.

Farmers were already worried that this growing season would be hampered by a cold, wet spring, followed by weeks of developing early-summer drought. Those conditions delayed plantings of soybeans, killed early crops of peas and berries, and stressed corn stalks just as they needed to be pollinated.

Now, farmers are trying to salvage the crops that survived those challenges but have more recently been drowning in flooded fields or afflicted with mold or disease. They are struggling to sell wheat that’s not up to quality for flour makers and hay that contains too much mold for horses to eat. They are hoping that things dry out soon, allowing wine grapes to build good flavor.

Even agricultural tourism has been affected, with an overabundance of moisture killing some of the fields of sunflowers popular among selfie-takers. They’re still expected to bloom — just later than usual, once conditions dry out enough for farmers to plant them again.

“There’s more than twice as much work and no more than half as much produce,” said Sally Voris, who operates White Rose Farm in Taneytown.

At Broom’s Bloom, a dairy farm near Bel Air, Kate Dallam and her daughter, Emmy, worried that all the rain would knock down their field of sunflowers. But their farm fared better than others.

“The sunflowers held up really well in that rainstorm, at least compared to our corn,” Emmy said.

A widespread 10-15 inches of rain fell across Maryland this month, with more than 16 inches at BWI Marshall Airport, Baltimore’s point of record. And more than 8 inches fell in May. Even considering that scant precipitation fell in late June and early July, allowing drought conditions to briefly begin developing, the past three months have been the region’s wettest on record.

All season, farmers have been either praying for rain, or praying for it to stop.

Clear Meadow Farms, which has fields across Harford, Baltimore and Frederick counties and in southern Pennsylvania, was one of the many farms forced to replant after heavy rains killed newly planted seedlings. In early June, it was corn; this month, it was a field of sunflowers in Jarrettsville.

Greg Rose, whose family runs the farm, said he hopes the sunflowers will be replanted later this week or early next. so they will still bloom — just in early October instead of September. But even such delays can be costly. “When you plant later in the season, you start losing crop yield,” he said.

During the dry stretch, when only half an inch of rain fell within a month, farmers could manage some crops with irrigation. But the pause in the rain came at a poor time for corn — when it must be pollinated for ears to start forming. That brought another round of losses to potential yield, said Evan Miles, a Queen Anne’s County farmer who is president of the Maryland Grain Producers Association.

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“You went from one extreme to another in a matter of a month,” he said.

Then, a flow of tropical moisture came roaring back in the second half of July, stronger than many crops could handle. It has been particularly devastating for fruits and vegetables like watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes and cucumbers, Bartenfelder said.

At Willow Creek Manor Farm, an organic farm in Carroll County, Michael Snyder expects the recent rain spoiled about a ton of tomatoes that would otherwise be sold in Wegmans supermarkets. All the water has them literally bursting out of their skin.

“The fruit is finally ready to pick, and it’s just split,” Snyder said. “It’s great to eat when you’re sitting there picking it on the vine. It won’t last.”

The effects on the agricultural economy are still becoming clear. The crop insurance program at Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit has seen a “tremendous” surge in claims for replanting, mostly for seeds that failed to germinate amid heavy rain in May and early June, said Kathi Bevan, the program’s manager.

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She said she’s still waiting to learn how damaging the more recent swing from dry to wet weather might be to corn and soybeans, the state’s top crops.

“I’m sure we’re going to have some claims this fall on that,” Bevan said. “I’m still holding out hope.”

Officials say there hasn’t been any effect on prices. The value of corn and soybeans is set by the Chicago Board of Trade, and changes in the local supply of fruits and vegetables has a minimal impact when so much produce is also coming from elsewhere around the country, Bartenfelder said.

There is still a lot of the season to go. For now, planting of fall crops like kale, radishes and beets is being delayed until soils can dry out.

Vintners are also counting on an end to the wet weather. Excessive rain can dilute the sugars in grapes, and ultimately affect the flavor of wine, if they don’t dry before being harvested.

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Bert Basignani, owner of Basignani Winery in Sparks-Glencoe, said he still has hope his grapes will dry out by October.

“You can still have a very good vintage if we get some heat and some sun,” he said. “You just have to play the hand you’re dealt, and right now we’re being dealt a lot of wet weather.”

Boordy Vineyards president and co-owner Rob Deford said growing grapes is like a horse race — it’s the last quarter that’s the most important.

“All is looking good, but we do need the rain to stop,” he said.

At Miles’ farm on the Eastern Shore, this will be the first season he has to use crop insurance on every variety he grows — soybeans, corn, lima beans and peas. He’s praying not just for the rain to stop, but for the weather extremes he has endured so far this year to simply even out.

His fields are proof of the challenges. In one spot, he has yet to plant anything, the ground still swamped with water. Fifty feet away on a small hill are some rows of soybeans that fried in the heat and drought.

“It’s been a disaster,” he said. “That summarizes the year right there.”

Scott DanceContact Reporter
The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Meehan contributed to this article.