Growing pains: Farmers look back on crops affected by early spring rain, long hot summer

Raspberries that are ripe and still growing sit on a stem Wednesday at Ellis Family Farms in Benton Township. One of the farm’s biggest crops this summer has been raspberries. Marc Gelder, son of the owner, is in the background. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Raspberries that are ripe and still growing sit on a stem Wednesday at Ellis Family Farms in Benton Township. One of the farm’s biggest crops this summer has been raspberries. Marc Gelder, son of the owner, is in the background. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BERRIEN COUNTY — As summer winds down, many farmers look to the skies for answers and some friendly weather.

Ellis Family Farms owner Rene Gelder looks for better weather as she grows a mixture of vegetables and fruit, which includes apples and peaches. The summer did not throw too much drama at the Benton Township resident, but Gelder said there were some instances where the weather did not cooperate.

“We have physically lost some trees, but we did not have frost this spring,” Gelder said. “In the spring we had lots of water and then a drought. We just received rain at the end of August when we were without water for at least half of July. It’s been taxing.”

Through the lack of water in the hottest part of the year, Gelder had to rely on drip irrigation.

Overall, the crop affected the most by weather was her peaches.

“I was not as satisfied, knowing what we raised in the past,” Gelder said in reference to her peaches. “The plums seem fine. The fall raspberries were outstanding. We don’t like to complain, but there always seems to be something that isn’t quite right each year.”

Gelder said Ellis Family Farms yielded less this summer, with the quality of the produce not being where she wanted it. With 16 varieties of peaches, Gelder said people can taste the difference whether they are more earthy or sweet.

Local farmers have had to keep an eye on their berries, as Gelder said too much rain washes out the flavor. If it is a heavy rain for farmers who are in the process of harvesting, those berries lose a lot of their flavor after two days. If that is the case, Gelder said farmers end up throwing out a lot of their berries.

Despite the influx of spring rain, Gelder said their raspberries were the best this summer because they were able to micromanage them throughout growing season.

“Those didn’t seem to be affected by rain or the adverse winter,” Gelder said. “We were able to manage the water on those a lot better. You always hope for more. Orchards last for a certain amount of years, but I have a feeling we are going to have more tree loss. We are not out of the woods.”

Beth Weaver, owner of Black Dog Flower Farm in Baroda, has had to use her greenhouse more than what was expected this year.

Her harvested crops are florist-grade flowers, ranging from lilies to lisianthus, that grow in greenhouses and in the field.

“We had too much rain this spring,” Weaver said. “I did lose probably 95 percent of my snap dragon crops due to the fact that they drowned. Heat and humidity is good for some vegetable plants, but some flower plants don’t do too well in those conditions. Things growing in the greenhouses were wonderful because I could control their climate.”

Some of the reasons for her loss in crops cannot be attributed to weather. Weaver said she has had to deal with field pests, but notes a lot of them are leaving in anticipation for colder weather. Chief among them are grasshoppers, which are known to eat a lot of the flowers’ pedals.

Mirrored summers

For Weaver, this year’s summer was nearly “a carbon copy” to last year’s summer.

“We had too much rain early in the spring,” she said. “The heat we had in the middle and end of summer wasn’t so good. Weeds love the heat so they are a big problem.”

Nathan Marsili, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service Northern Indiana office, said Berrien County saw less rain from the beginning of April through the end of August this year compared to 2014 – but the weather patterns were similar.

According to information collected from NWS’ Benton Harbor station, Berrien County got 13.4 inches of rain from April 1 to Aug. 31. In 2014, the county saw 17.7 inches of rain in that period.

A monthly breakdown shows May was the wettest month this year with 4.05 inches, a leading factor as to why spring was so different for farmers this year, Marsili said. In 2014, June had a high of 5.98 inches of rain, which raised the monthly average for 2014 after July posted only 1.19 inches.

“The distribution was uneven in 2014,” Marsili said. “We had a pretty abrupt transition last year in June by going into a really dry July. It’s been more uniform this year from month to month.”

To put June 2014 in perspective, Marsili said the typical June would get an average of 3.5 inches for Berrien County.

But still, it’s not all bad news for local farmers.

Cindy Grewett of Kitty Hill Organics in Dowagiac said they have benefited from the rain.

“Rain has had the biggest impact. We actually did well with it in the beginning because we don’t have irrigation,” Grewett said. “However, with it being cold early on with the moisture sitting around, it didn’t help because that creates a lot of disease problems. That can be a headache for organic farming.”

The crops that have flourished under such conditions for Grewett has been broccoli and cauliflower. But the amount of rain has hurt her strawberries.

“Next summer I would hope we can continue to have good weather with a little less rain to start with,” Grewett said. “It would be nice if Mother Nature were a little more normal.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 10, 2015)

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