2011-05-05 / Local & State

Rain Putting Pa. Farmers On The Sidelines

By James Haggerty

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) – Maybe this would be a good year to grow watercress or water chestnuts.

Although both aquatic vegetables actually grow in water, heavy rains and wet fields have kept vegetable farmers on the sidelines, delaying spring planting.

“Anybody that is doing tillage can’t move because even dry ground is very wet,” said Charlie Miller, who grows 50 acres of vegetables in Newton Twp. and is president of the board at the Scranton Co- operative Farmers Market. “We are a good two weeks behind (in planting). We’re approaching three weeks.”

Farmers throughout Pennsylvania have vegetable transplants in storage, waiting for ground conditions to improve, said John Esslinger, a Lackawanna County Cooperative Extension educator who specializes in fruits and vegetables.

“According to the calendar, it's time to get the sweet corn in, and they haven't even got the onions in yet,” he said. “Statewide, everybody is in the same boat.”

Farmers face another occupational hazard as they wait for Mother Nature to dry their fields. Fuel and fertilizer prices assure them of higher operating costs.

“Our fuel cost is probably going to be close to twice what it was a year ago,” said Jim Schirg, whose family plants about 45 acres of vegetables in West Abington Twp. and sells produce at the farmers market. “Fuel affects everything. It’s made an impact across the board.”

Regional prices for diesel fuel, which farmers use to operate pickup trucks and tractors, averaged $4.27 a gallon on Tuesday, according to AAA Motor Club. The price was up 5 percent in the past month and was 34 percent higher than the year-ago average.

Prices also are rising for fertilizer, especially high-nitrogen blends and phosphate compounds.

“Any time fuel goes up, fertilizer goes up,” Miller said. “We are getting hit everywhere.”

Wet fields seem to be everywhere after almost 4 inches of rain fell regionally in April, about 1-1/2 inches above normal, said Eric Wilhelm, a meteorologist at Accu-Weather Inc. in State College. Local precipitation for the year, including snowfall, totals about 14.5 inches, or about 4-1/2 inches above normal, he said.

Farmers are used to natural adversity but admit the delay in planting is frustrating.

“Nobody is panicking at this point,” Esslinger said.

“It gets kind of depressing because we’ve all got a lot of money (in plants) sitting in the garage waiting to go into the ground,” Miller said. “If we get some really good heat, get the crop in the ground and it stays warm, then things can turn around.”

Schirg, who farms at a high elevation but usually has potatoes and corn planted by now, said the cold and wet conditions probably will stall planting on his farm until May. The delay creates a scramble to make up for lost time, he said.

“It does not feel like farming weather, and we are not even plowing now because the fields are too wet,” he said.

“If the weather turns out nice, you are trying to do two weeks of work in two days. We could catch up pretty fast.”

Local produce consumers probably will not notice any major difference, Esslinger said, though the sweet corn crop probably will not come in until after July 4.

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