Heavy rains forecast for this week could seriously damage crops already weakened by unusually cool and wet conditions.
Frequent rains and cooler than normal temperatures have delayed planting, growing and harvesting schedules by up to three weeks. Some fields have been unable to be planted or harvested. Some plants have already drowned in the wet soil, and waterborne disease has hit others.
Experts say the damage in the fields could worsen considerably with heavy rains predicted for most of the week. John Mueller, director of Clemson University’s Edisto Research and Education Center and a professor of plant pathology, says significant rainfall this week could mean significant losses at harvest time.
“If it rains as much as they predict in the next few days, we’ll start at 10 percent yield losses and then move up,” Mueller said. “You can’t fight Mother Nature. If it’s going to rain 2 or 3 inches, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. There’s no way we can work around it. We just have to do the best we can.”
This season’s prolonged wet conditions and consistently heavy rains over the past several weeks are unlike any other season area growers can recall, Mueller said.
The National Weather Service recorded more than 7 inches of rain in Charlotte in June – more than twice the normal level. For the year, the area is more than 5 inches above its normal rainfall total.
As of last week, the N.C. Department of Agriculture reported that 43 percent of the soil across the Piedmont was wetter than ideal. Temperatures for the month averaged 2 degrees below normal.
“People need to be aware that we’re having a very (unusual) set of environmental conditions right now,” said Margaret Genkins, a volunteer master gardener for the Mecklenburg County Cooperative Extension.
For the first time in 25 years of gardening in south Charlotte, Genkins said she had to replant several tomato plants that were damaged by cucumber mosaic virus, which afflicts a variety of garden plants.
Dave Blackley, the owner of Renfrow Hardware in Matthews, said customers are coming to him daily with questions about how to deal with plant fungi. He’s seeing more customers than ever buying replacement seeds or plants – including vegetables, fruits, flowers and lawn grass.
“It’s pretty discouraging to a new gardener,” Blackley said. “That’s why 1 percent of the population is a full-time farmer. It’s hard.”
Growers have had to invest more time and work into their products this season, he said, and “they’re just frustrated.”
Longtime Renfrow customer and Matthews gardener Sheila Turner came to the store last week to buy some tomato plants. She and her husband have had to replace cucumbers, bell peppers, squash and several flower plants because heavy rains have drowned them.
“We’ve never had stuff to drown before that I can remember,” Turner said. “Of course it is (frustrating).”
Brent Barbee, whose family owns and operates Barbee Farms in Concord, says this year was the “weirdest spring that I’ve ever seen.”
“A little bit of rain is not (a problem), but too much can be a pretty serious problem,” Barbee said.
He saw a lot of strawberries rotting on the vine, suffering from Botrytis cinerea, or gray mold, which is caused by wet, humid conditions.
Most of their crops are growing about three weeks behind schedule, Barbee said. Conversely, a warm, dry season last year had crops coming in about three weeks earlier than normal.
The Charlotte Regional Farmers Market is noticing its seasonal growers bringing their products a few weeks later than usual, employee Donna Willis said. Even so, vendors and customers alike are coming to the market in greater numbers, Willis said.
Some 10,000 customers can be found at the market any given Saturday, she said, along with around 160 vendors. And there are vendors on a waiting list to come sell. The Barbees sell their products at several area farmers markets and their own farm stand, and Barbee says their sales volume is “actually pretty close to what it has been in the past.”
Barbee said the farm should be harvesting a number of crops – including cantaloupes, watermelons, sweet corn and peaches – in the next week.
But the wet weather forecast could change those plans.
“You really don’t know,” Barbee said. “A farmer is one of the biggest gamblers in today’s world.”
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