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Cool, wet weather puts a damper on Sussex crops

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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Farmers still reeling from effects of April frost

Soggy fields are posing a challenge for some local farmers still reeling from the damage of an April frost, but local farmer Charlotte Magee says all is not lost. "We lost our early berries in that freeze. We would have had strawberries three weeks ago," the Magee Farms owner said. "But it's surprising to see that the second blossoming is huge for us. We weren't sure what was going to happen."

The cloudy, cool conditions of May have slowed the ripening of Magee's berries and other crops across the county, but bright red berries in the fields near Lewes offer a sign of hope.

Extensive rain hasn't damaged her blossoming crop, she said, but on the west side of the county, flooding conditions have wiped out some producers.

"It's really the whole East Coast, from Florida up that's being affected," she said. "We normally would have early sweet corn, early watermelon and strawberries. People need to keep in mind that the weather truly dictates what we as farmers can do."

Saturated soils have caused Magee to delay planting crops such as watermelons, which she hopes to get in the ground this week. But it's the lack of sunlight that's really hampering growth across Sussex County farms, said Cory Whaley, an agriculture specialist with the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.

But it's too early to tell how drastically the delays will impact the overall growing season.

"It's going to be a late harvest season," he said. "But overall yield potential is still there."

Whaley said mildew, moisture-loving pests and other diseases may pose bigger problems for small-grain crops, such as wheat and barley. "The small grains did pretty well with the late frost," he said. "Typically, small grains are sensitive to some diseases, such as powdery mildew, which has been a problem with some small grains [this season]."

Whaley said the warm winter season showed a lot of yield potential, especially for small grains, but a frost in the first week of April damaged crops, while the wet spring has slowed growth and impeded planting.

Delaware State Climatologist Daniel Leathers said Georgetown has seen about 3.7 inches of rain since the beginning of May, with 12 of the first 16 days of the month seeing at least a trace of rainfall. "If it seems like it's been raining constantly, that's because it's been raining constantly," he said. "It's been kind of an unusual spring so far."

Leathers said even with May's constant precipitation, 2016 has averaged only about 0.5 inches above normal. But 2015-16 was the fourth warmest winter on record in the state since 1895, with temperatures reaching about 6.5 degrees above normal. March and April followed suit, he said, with temperatures averaging about 4 degrees above normal.

But an early April cold snap that sent temperatures plummeting for several days nearly decimated the peach supply at Bennett Orchards in Frankford and killed Magee Farms' first round of berries, which had already flowered and then quickly turned brown. "For a while, there were no berries anywhere," Magee said. "When we opened stands before Mother's Day weekend, nobody had berries — just a few had enough for their own stands. In the Laurel area, they don't have any because the plants were flooded. That could affect everything." At Black Hog Farmstead in Lewes, farmers Helen and John Feliciani have delayed some planting because the ground is so wet. But on their property, with wetlands and poorly drained soils, too much moisture is a challenge they've been dealing with for years.

Raised beds have helped avert flooding, and waiting to plant tomatoes and peppers may stave off damaging fungus.

"We're at the bottom of the watershed, and we do get some runoff from other people, which is exacerbated by clay soil. We're getting savvy," Helen Feliciani said. "We're learning how to deal with it." Magee said people looking for favorite items may see delayed availability or price increases on some produce, such as strawberries, corn, peas, green beans, peaches, watermelon and even tomatoes and peppers.

"When you have a very wet early spring or late spring, it'll disrupt when produce will come out — if it does at all," Magee said. "Fanners are doing the best they can, and we don't try to take it out on the consumer, but when we lose on the production end, there's a shortage and unfortunately it does alter things. We're working around Mother Nature. She's the boss."

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Original Publication Date: May 20, 2016

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