Food Service & Agriculture and Sustainability

Rainfall hasn’t hurt county’s agriculture sector

Farmers and growers find themselves in a better condition this spring than last.

April 26, 2013
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Rainfall hasn't hurt county's agriculture sector
Kent County, which is tops in the state for apple production and ninth nationally, should be in far better shape this year despite the recent rains. Last year's volatile spring weather wiped out much of the crop. ©Thinkstock

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Although the recent torrential rains made life miserable for property owners along the swollen banks of the Grand River, the county’s growers and farmers are in relatively good shape because this spring’s temperatures have been cooler than normal.

Had those rains occurred this time last year — after a week of abnormal mid-80-degree readings in the middle of last March — the outcome would have been different for growers.

“When we first start seeing some green tissue is around the 10th of April. Well, we haven’t seen that yet and we’re nearly two weeks behind in our average spring. So it’s OK to see the rain because this time of year the rain normally leads to disease problems for us. But with no green tissue out, there is no risk for anything,” said Amy Irish-Brown, an educator at the Kent/Michigan State University Extension who follows the county’s apple, peach and sweet cherry production.

The fruit trees haven’t sprouted any green yet because the temperatures have been cooler than normal. “Had we had a normal green-up, it certainly would have been a big problem,” she added. “For perennial crops like the trees, given that we’re a little behind in the season, this is not that big of a deal.

“This year is an entirely different year from last year. At this time last year, we were in full bloom, and then we got our big freeze on April 27, which took out all our crops. I haven’t met any fruit growers who seemed to mind the rain at this point. They’re just happy we’re not starting early like we did last year.”

Irish-Brown said some orchards have flooded areas, but most have tiles, a series of perforated plastic tubes buried 3 or 4 feet below the fields, to handle an abundance of rainfall. “It’s amazing how fast that (water) goes down,” she said.

As for the crop farmers — those who own the corn, soybeans and vegetable fields — Irish-Brown said the excess rain could slow their production. Normally, they’re plowing their fields by now and getting ready to plant, but most have had to push their schedules back.

“They’re going to be delayed a little bit, but it’s cool, so there’s no hurry. The ground is cold yet. … As long as it doesn’t continue to be above-average rainfall, we’ll probably dry out nicely just in time for everything to get started,” she said.

On the day the Grand River began to recede, April 21, the National Weather Service reported that 9.8 inches of rain had fallen here this month. In contrast, the average normal rainfall for those three weeks is 2.2 inches.

“It is going to be a little muddy out there for some of those first cover sprays they need to do to protect from disease, but for the most part, everything is looking about as good as it can look right now,” said Irish-Brown.

As Irish-Brown noted, the area had a fairly mild and dry winter for most of the season, and she said the growers were anxious as their thoughts turned to last year when there wasn’t any frost to slow the growing process down. Spring came quickly and the March heat made everything bloom just as frost arrived in late April.

But at the end of January this year, the temperature fell and the winter became colder. “There was almost a palpable sigh of relief across the fruit-growing region when all that cold weather moved in, in January. For the growers, it was like a weight was lifted and they felt like they were going to be OK now that winter decided to show up,” she said.

“They were nervous. Last year was tough with no income and it would have been even tougher to have two years of that.”

Thirty-six percent of the land in Kent County is devoted to farming and growing. The county is tops in the state for apple production and ninth nationwide. Its crops are diverse and the industry includes dairy farming and meat production. Agriculture in Michigan is worth at least $73 billion annually, accounting for 25 percent of jobs, either directly or indirectly.

Irish-Brown said if the area gets a lot more rain in May, there could be more delays for planting and the added moisture could make it tougher to work the fields. More rainfall could also create a situation that could make diseases more likely. “It doesn’t mean they can’t handle that, it just makes it more difficult,” she said.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.

“I don’t know what the future holds. We’re still stuck under a jet stream that is keeping us cooler, so I guess that’s OK if the rain wants to come. That would just hold things off and allow the earth to absorb what it needs to absorb,” said Irish-Brown.

“We were on the dry side until all this rain decided to come. As long as we don’t go to the other extreme and have a drought this summer …”

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