‘It’s just been hard’

Aug. 02, 2013 @ 05:11 PM

Carrots too small to sell. Cauliflower that never matured. Broccoli that wasn’t sellable.

Those were some of the impacts of this year’s heavy rainfall that Jillian Mickens said she and her husband saw on Open Door Farm, the farm they operate on half an acre in Orange County.
The fields were too wet to use the tractor, delaying when they could plant their spring crops, Mickens said. That didn’t leave enough time for the crops to mature before the heat and pests settled in, she said.
“We had less to sell and that really stinks because we had all this money that we had anticipated having from all of our spring crops and had none of it,” Mickens said.
She also said their summer crops were affected. Excess moisture led to damage on some of their tomatoes, she said, and to mildew on their cucumbers.
They aren’t the only farmers to report problems from this year’s rainfall. Other farmers in the area reported delays in when they could both plant and harvest, higher incidences of plant disease, and lower quality in some of their products.
Ryan Boyles, state climatologist and the director of the State Climate Office of North Carolina, said a gauge at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport recorded the wettest May, June and July on record.
There was a total of 18.08 inches of rain recorded in the three-month period, he said, 6.6 inches above normal. That’s the highest out of 69 years of data for that three-month period. The closest was in 1984 at 17.71 inches.
David Walker, the owner of Walker’s Farm in Hillsborough, said his wheat, soybeans, corn, hay, tomatoes, cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash, and strawberries were hurt by the amount of rain.
Walker said he owns about 140 acres and leases an additional 700 acres, some of which is for pasture. The farm has been transitioning since 2004 from tobacco to vegetable, beef and hay production. He sells crops at farmers’ markets in Hillsborough and in Durham.
“It has really been devastating for the wheat farmer, all the ones I know anyway,” he said, estimating that he could have harvested around 7,500 bushels of wheat, but said he’ll be lucky to have 3,500 bushels of wheat to sell for animal feed instead of as more valuable wheat for milling.
“When wheat gets dry, it’s ready to be harvested,” he said. “If it gets wet again, it swells up, and then dries, it shrinks. Then if it gets wet again, it shrinks again, and so forth and so on, until it weighs nothing.”
He said he has concerns about an overabundance of feed wheat, which he said isn’t as available as wheat sold for milling, on the market.
He also said he lost his first round of cantaloupes because they rotted in the field, and his berry crop was cut in half. All told, he said estimated a loss of about $12,000 in revenue.
   “There aren’t going to be any profits … in other words, financially, we won’t earn enough to pay off what we put in the ground,” he said. “We’re working seven days a week, some of this stuff I try not to think about, but I’m hoping something (will) come around,” he added.
Ben Bergmann, the owner of Fickle Creek Farm in Orange County that sells produce, eggs and pasture-raised meat in several Triangle farmers’ markets, said tomatoes are a big money-maker for his farm, and they lost a whole field of them.
Bergmann also estimated that half of his farm’s onions and potatoes rotted in the field. There were quality issues because of the rain and lack of sun, he said. The strawberries and blueberries were watery.
“I don’t want to say ‘watery tasteless local produce,’ but that’s just what we have locally here this year,” he said.
The farm also produces eggs, pasture-raised pork, chicken, and beef, and the weather had negative impacts on the animals, as well. For example, he said, the lambs weren’t eating well.
“They’re kind of limping along and not eating well, they can’t get around too well,” Bergmann said. “It’s these kinds of things that take, I would say, a whole season to right the ship again.”
He estimated that the farm is missing out on about $1,000 a week in revenues in the last couple of months and “for the foreseeable future.”
“We’ve just had a really hard time here,” he said. “I don’t know how else to say it so it sounds quaint and energetic and optimistic. No, it’s just been hard.”
He said that if “things sort of stabilize,” maybe the farm’s fall crop will be back on track.
“Our tried-and-true customers have been great, but what we really need to do is get across to the larger community – keep supporting your local farmers,” he said. “If anything, I think in a hard year it’s more important than in an easy year. In an easy year you have tons, everything tastes great, everything looks good, everybody’s happy.”
For Mickens, she said she thought it was good for her and her husband to experience bad weather early on when their income isn’t solely dependent on farming.
They’re in their second year farming as part of the PLANT@Breeze Farm Enterprise Incubator, a program that leases small plots of land to new farmers and teaches them farming techniques in a series of workshops.
She said she recently quit her job to farm full time, but her husband, Ross Mickens, also works an engineer. 
“I think it was kind of a good year for us to have experienced this weather, it just gives us more insight into how the weather can crazily impact your crops, and then impact your business, and your take-home,” she said. “It sucks that it happened, but I’m glad it happened in our first few years.”
They’re a little behind on fall planting, she said, but plan to start as soon as possible.
“We’re just getting ready for fall right now, and hopefully can make up the money with our fall crops,” she said.