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Too much rainfall proving difficult for farmers this year

PHOTO VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Seneca County has seen an overabundance of rain this spring, and local farmers, their crops and the soil those crops are grown in bear the brunt of the deluge.

The recent glut of rainfall is especially unwelcome during the area’s spring planting season, which typically runs from early April to the end of May or early June.

Hallie Williams, Ohio State University Extension Educator for agriculture and natural resources in Seneca County, explained some of the science behind the concerns regarding too much rainfall for local farmers.

“For one, we cannot plant in mud, because equipment gets stuck and seeds can’t survive,” she said. “Though water is necessary for virtually every function of plant growth, too much water reduces the amount of oxygen in the soil, resulting in root loss or injury. It can also make the plant more susceptible to fungal diseases. Heavy rain can damage plants, compact soil and cause erosion.”

Though many of the fields in the area are tiled to help remove excess water when it falls, Williams said the county is experiencing “record amounts of rain” this year and tiled fields are not enough to stem the tide.

“Right now we need multiple days of warm, dry weather, ideally with wind, so that our soils can dry out,” she said.

Dwight Clary, owner of Clary Farms in Kansas, seconded Williams’ statement about this year being noteworthy in respect to the amount of rain this area has experienced.

“Northwest Ohio has been hit worse than other places,” he said. “In our location, we usually get 34 inches of rain per year, and we’ve already had 14 inches of rain just since April 1. That’s between 40 and 42% of our yearly rainfall just within our planting season, and our soils are too wet to plant.”

Asked what farmers have been doing to combat this excess of moisture, Clary said some crops have been planted on ridges and on higher ground to ward off some of the rainwater, but high ground makes up only a small percent of the total acreage used for farming in the area. Many local farmers plant on “flat, heavy clay soil” that dries hard, which makes it difficult for roots to grow through and absorb water, Clary said.

“What we really need is 10-14 days of nice weather to dry out the soil and then plant after that,” he said.

Many area farmers are trying to wait out the rain, hoping to plant later to avoid the problem. But there are problems with waiting to plant as well.

“The later in the season you plant, the more that risk factors go up. If you’ve just got seedlings out there instead of established plants later in the season, they might ripen in late fall and an early frost could damage them,” he said.

Williams said some farmers are using online resources like the Corn Growing Degree Day Decision Support Tool from the Midwestern Regional Climate Center, which compares the past 30 years of climate readings and gives trend projections for the rest of the year.

“This tool helps farmers decide if they need to change their variety of corn to a variety that matures quicker so that they can harvest before a winter frost,” she said. “And others are looking to change their crop rotations, like growing soybeans instead of corn or planting cover crops to help maintain or improve their soil health until next year.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website, cover crops are agronomically-sound plants that are planted for the purposes of erosion control and soil conservation and improvement.

“Cover crops are varieties of plant species we can use to protect the soil from erosion and help to capture and hold nutrients on the field instead of letting them into the stream,” Clary said.

Clary, who is also a seed dealer for Center Seeds Cover Crops, said he attended a meeting with local farmers and the Seneca Conservation District Tuesday night meant for the discussion of how cover crops can be used to conserve soil in farmers’ otherwise empty fields.

“With cover crops, you always want some overwintering species, meaning plants that will make it through the winter. Essentially, this means you always have nutrients in the soil, because the roots of these plants take the nutrients up and turn them into plant material and this gets cycled back into the soil,” he said.

Certain legumes, clovers, and what Clary referred to as “scavenger plants,” which aggressively absorb nutrients, are commonly used as cover crops in the area.

“With cover crops, we try to reduce soil compaction, which is bad in our area. Cover crops loosen the soil and allow water to filter through the soil,” he said.

Though cover crops help to prevent erosion and work to conserve the soil, they can only do so much when it comes to combating excess rainwater.

“Farmers can and are currently using cover crops to hope they can remove the water from the soils, but a year like this has seen so much water that it hasn’t really affected fields all that much. Since mid-October we’ve had unusually wet weather, and brutally cold weather in the winter, which has also been hard on the winter wheat crop, cover crops, and livestock, too,” he said.

In the end, some farmers’ fields may end up lying empty this year. In instances such as these, farmers can try to recoup some of their losses through insurance clauses which allow for “prevent plant acres.” These acres, typically meant for normal planting, are sometimes covered via insurance if farmers are not able to plant on them after a certain date in a season. After this predefined date, farmers can make an insurance claim to try to make up for the financial loss caused by the absent crops they will not be able to grow, for reasons such as extreme weather conditions.

“Many farmers are still hoping to plant corn but they are also considering taking a prevent plant option. This is a very difficult decision for each farmer based off of their management practices (like their crop rotations), their needs as a farm, what we expect summer weather to be like, and future prices of corn and soybeans,” Williams said.

“Crop insurance helps you keep your head just above water,” Clary said.

Clary put into words the general concern for farmers that excessive rainfall brings.

“We have to ensure the survivability of our farmers in this country, who are taking a huge financial hit this year. Some farms may not be able to survive it,” he said. “This is a very stressful time for farmers, and I hope that people will become aware of what they’re going through.”

With the National Weather Service’s office in Cleveland calling for a 50-70 % chance of rain each day of the upcoming weekend, and an uncertain future beyond the reach of forecasting, there may well be more hardship for local farmers to come.

“If anyone out there is praying for rain, please stop,” Williams said.

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