As Carroll County farmers reel from historically rainy year, climate change report predicts more moisture

Alex Mann
Contact ReporterCarroll County Times

As dusk set over Westminster on a recent Thursday, Colin O’Meara turned his combine 180 degrees to cut another row of soybeans.

Just because the sun had set didn’t mean the work was done, so the 38-year-old ignited the bright lights of the New Holland harvesting machine and throttled forward.

As fall turns to winter, farmers have scrambled to harvest the last of their corn, soybeans, small grains and hay — the staples of Carroll County agriculture — with some working through the night during recent cold spells to capitalize on fleeting firm ground. The brief freezes offer respite from the soggy fields that have plagued farmers much of this year.

“When you think about a bad year, you think about a drought,” O’Meara said. “You don’t think about ample rain. Everybody always says, ‘Don’t cuss too much rain because it’s always better to have too much than not enough.’

“But this year really makes you wonder.”

As the historically wet year comes to a close, President Donald Trump’s administration recently released the latest climate change report, which projects long-term more wet weather, among many other impacts for the region encompassing Maryland.

Farming folklore says you make hay when the sun shines. But in 2018, Carroll County farmers say, that hasn’t happened nearly enough.

“I’ve never seen anything like this year,” said Gary Dell, a 49-year-old, fourth-generation Carroll farmer. “My grandfather’s never seen anything like it. It’s been one for the record books, that’s for sure.”

The Baltimore area has been soaked by more than 65 inches of precipitation, the most ever in the area, according to the National Weather Service.

Unprecedented precipitation, paired with some other weather patterns like a midseason drought, has been detrimental to Carroll County’s agricultural industry — a pillar of its rural culture.

It rained early and it rained late in the year, and most of the time between.

“We had just a very short window in the spring where there were some folks that were able to get some crops planted, but you always have assumed in previous years, ‘Oh, well that window’s gonna come again and again and again, you just gotta catch it,’ ” said Bryan R. Butler Sr., agriculture agent with the University of Maryland Extension, Carroll County. “There’s not usually just one opportunity; where this year, it was very limited.

“So crops had to sort of be snuck in. Everything was done between showers.”

Early rains delay planting, as driving heavy machinery over saturated ground compromises soil structure with deep ruts. Prolonged precipitation once the crops are planted leads to molding and disease. Late moisture presents problems akin to those in early season. All affect productivity, crop yields and plant nutrition.

“It hurts on both ends,” said Bill Rasche, who co-owns and operates a large farm near Taneytown. “You’re trying to get a crop in the ground, and you can’t get it in a timely fashion, which definitely relates to yield potential. Then we turn around here at harvest time; and we’re getting a lot of rain, and the corn and soybeans both ended up with disease in them that was more so than a normal year.”

Soaked soybeans get docked at the elevator, as the buyer will run tests to check for damage and moisture, then deduct accordingly from the price. Some Carroll farmers run their beans through dryers — essentially a conveyor belt through a furnace room.

“It costs more to get docked for wet or poor quality beans than it does to dry the crop,” Rasche said.

But that doesn’t mean it’s cheap to run the furnaces. When they’re running the dryer full stop, Dell said, it burns roughly 600 gallons of propane per day.

And then there’s hay. Some farmers sell their hay for cattle to graze in the winter. O’Meara tries to sell his to horse owners.

“It has to be good quality to go to horse people,” he said. “And with the rain, we just didn’t get it.”

To make hay you need three to four days of good, sunny weather. Then you mow the grass and bale it. If rain soaks the hay after it’s been cut, it bleaches it and strips away the nutritional value, O’Meara explained.

“If it doesn’t have the nutritional value,” he said, “it’s not going to have the monetary value either.”

Climate report could be bad news for farmers

The Trump administration on Nov. 23 released the latest edition of a report predicting the long-term impact of climate change. The forecast would seem like bad news to an agricultural area reeling from the rainiest year on record.

For the Northeast region, of which Carroll County is part, the report predicts wetter weather, frequent flooding, more pests, extreme heat and shorter winters, among other impacts.

By the end of the century — 2070-2100 — precipitation across the region is expected to be 1 inch greater per month from December through April, according to the more extreme of two scenarios outlined in the report.

“By the middle of this century, winters are projected to be milder still, with fewer cold extremes, particularly across inland and northern portions of the Northeast,” the report details. “This will likely result in a shorter and less pronounced cold season with fewer frost days and a longer transition out of winter into the growing season.”

That could be bad for farming, Butler said. “The slow or irregular transition to spring could have a detrimental effect on production because it would shorten our growing season and could have an effect on many aspects of production.”

Farmers rely on winter to some degree to mitigate pests, Butler said, so a shorter winter could mean less natural pest management.

The report says that over the next 50 years the Northeast region could benefit from a longer growing season. However, the report details that the benefit could be mitigated by wetter weather, which could prevent farmers from capitalizing on warmer temperatures by delaying crop plantings and preventing them from entering the fields, as it did in 2018.

Following the rainiest year on record, heavy and more frequent rain is the chief concern.

“Really, these heavy, heavy rains are hard to take because you have parts of the field that will wash out. Springs are opening up that hadn’t opened up in many, many years,” Butler said. “So it’s very challenging getting into the field in places you’ve been driving for 20 years, all the sudden now you get hung up because a spring has opened up or you have a big giant ditch because the soil eroded in that area.”

The projections outlined in the report are long term, with some forecasts pointing to 50 years or a century away, but it’s clear that those conditions will be unwelcome.

“If this is an indication of what’s going to be happening with our weather, it’s going to make it very, very challenging,” Butler said. “If 2018 is an example of where we’re going, it’s going to be nightmarish to be involved in agriculture in this area.”

Tough 2018 could mean rough start next season

Barry High pulled up to the Dell Brothers’ farm on his tractor with a large trailer in tow around 4 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29.

The 72-year-old drove into the wind tunnel that is the Dell’s weighing station — considered by farmers to be the coldest place in the county. Wind gusts over the hill, whips around the corner and through the covered tractor and truck bay. It’s where farmers drop off grain and pick up seed. High was there for the latter.

As the elevator spout filled High’s trailer and wind swirled the dust into a grainy haze, High joked with Dell and his father Greg Dell, 67. One has to make light of tough times, and the Dells finished up with all their crops that day. Spirits were high.

High said he worried that soaked fields would go into a hard winter freeze and thaw into a soggy mess come spring time.

“There’s so much moisture now,” said High, who farms some 600 acres off Old Bachmans Valley Road in Westminster. “Unless we have an extremely dry spring, it will affect how early we can plant.”

If it rains or snows significantly over the winter, that could magnify an already damp ground come springtime.

“The spring could be very wet. Even though it may not be raining, the ground will still be saturated and a lot of springs have opened up, so a lot of parts of the field are difficult to get into,” Butler said. “So that could really impact us next year.”

Depleted yields, an eye toward the future

Rasche’s business, like those of other Carroll farmers, will have taken a hit this year once the numbers are crunched.

Dell said his family operation is going to see about 20 percent less production than the last three to four years. And it took 30 percent longer to get the crop.

Mike Harrison farms 600 acres across Carroll County, including 175 where he lives in Woodbine. He expects his yields to be down 50 to 75 percent in total. His fields, like many farmers’ fields, were subject to historic saturation.

The 65-year-old also saw the Mount Airy tornado tear across one of his fields. “It’s probably going to be an 80 percent loss in that field.”

If 2019 becomes a repeat of 2018, it would be bad news. “We really can’t stand another year like this,” Rasche said.

“You’re gonna have to borrow money to keep going,” Harrison said.

Despite the climate report seemingly calling for many of the conditions that have made this year tough, many Carroll farmers say they are unfazed by the long-term predictions: Forecasts have been wrong before; weather is cyclical; it’s out of their hands. Answers vary.

“I don’t bank on that kind of thing,” said Rasche, 64, and a lifelong farmer. “Otherwise we’d probably all end up quitting.”

It’s also a matter of focusing on the present. It’s been hard to get through the season.

“I’m not letting that change my way of thinking for the future,” O’Meara said. “Not at this point.”

Agriculture has always been an industry dependent on weather.

“When your livelihood depends on the weather, you can’t say, ‘Well I’m just not going to plant anything because they say it’s going to be a drought for the next 90 days.’ You have to have a balance of what you’re going to do,” Dell said. “And are you going to take insurance out on what they’re forecasting and if so, that’s another expense that you have to add to every acre that you farm. So it’s a guide, but not something we can live by.”

Travis Trout, 25, cultivates what was his father’s 147-acre farm in Keymar. He said he could survive another year like 2018.

“You have to change with the times. If the long-term trend is that you’re getting warmer weather, you just have to change with that,” Trout said.

If the forecasts are accurate and the weather does get wetter, Trout will adapt.

“I would probably change it by making more baleage of high-moisture hay and put more acreage into permanent pasture” for the cattle, he added.

Smaller-scale operations have more options than larger-scale farms.

As far as vegetables go, farmers “can grow things in high tunnels, protected culture, where they have a little bit of control over the environmental conditions,” Butler said. “That’s really smaller scale and very limited … on a larger scale it’s going to be looking at things like hybrids that will be more well-adapted to conditions we start to see.”

Whether the industry goes in that direction remains to be seen. In the meantime Carroll farmers must focus on harvesting the last of this year’s crop, and keeping a positive outlook for 2019.

“Farmers in general are a pretty optimistic bunch,” O’Meara said. “You almost have to be to do this. You just hope next year’s better and keep on going.”

alex.mann@carrollcountytimes.com

667-367-4291

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