Excessive Spring Rainfall Poses Serious Challenges for CNY Farmers

Jun 8, 2017

Prof. Margaret Smith checks on the corn at Poplar Ridge research farm in Aurora.
Credit ezramagazine.cornell.edu

If you think your lawn and flowers are waterlogged, think of what Central New York farmers are dealing with after record amounts of rain this spring.  WAER News checked in with an expert to find out what the industry is up against. Margaret Smith is a professor in plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University. 

"Well, it's starting off to be a really challenging agricultural year."

She says there’s a complicated choreography behind the planting season….

"Some people were just waiting and waiting to do corn.  Then their soybeans got later and later.  Then their hay was ready to chop, but they still hadn't planted corn and soybeans.  So maybe they switched over and tried to chop some hay, but even haying is really hard to do unless you can get two or three days of good, dry weather.”                                                         

That’s been hard to come by.  Smith is a corn breeder, so she’s closely monitoring its progress…

"As of last Sunday, half of New York's corn crop had been planted.  Normally that would be up around 85 percent or so.  Maybe a quarter of it had emerged from the ground; that would normally be two-thirds in a more typical year.  So you get the sense that crops are just way behind.  Farmers are still trying to plant corn and it's June," Smith said with a chuckle.

She says some corn and other crops can mature in as few as 75 days, but time is quickly running out even for those varieties.  Smith says many farmers have just given up on certain crops.

"Some things have just gotten eliminated.  A lot of people didn't get to planting spring grains, and now it's too late.  You can plant them, they might germinate, but the amount of yield you would get from that crop would be so low it doesn't justify spending the money to do the planting because you won't recoup that investment.”                                                                            

This year…so far, is proving to be the opposite of last year, when much of upstate was entering a drought.

Withered corn in Pennsylvania, 2007.
Credit iam.umces.edu

“There's an old farmer expression in this part of the world:  The dry years will scare you and the wet years will kill you.  Last year was the dry year, and everybody was scared, and there were some fields that produced nothing because of that drought.  But most places you got something.  When it's just endlessly rainy, you can have a lot bigger losses.”                                                                  

Smith says now she’s hoping the precipitation pendulum doesn’t swing the other way as we enter the peak growing season.

“For a year like this when it's been so wet, if we don't have pretty good rains going forward, it's even more challenging.  The crops,  when there's  a lot of water in the soil, they don't really put down as many deep roots because they don't need to.  They don't need to reach for the water.  Then if you get shortages later in the growing season, they don't have those deep roots to try and reach for the water.”                                                                 

Smith says the year-to-year extremes in rainfall aren’t unheard of, but the almost constant precipitation has been unusual.