Cold stalls farmers
Crop-planting delayed until dirt warms up Cold stalls farmers BY JON RUTTER, Staff Writer
Alfred Wanner spent some time Wednesday fixing a manure pump.
He would have begun planting about 500 acres of corn, but cool spring temperatures have been holding him back.
"I'm about a week behind what I'd say is average," judged Wanner, who milks dairy cows and grows crops in Narvon.
"I think you're going to see farmers across the county are pretty much in the same boat."
The pattern stands out starkly from 2012 and 2011, which had remarkably warm springs.
West Hempfield Township organic farmer Tom Culton recalled planting sweet peas last year well before St. Patrick's Day on March 17. This year, he waited until Easter.
Culton said he and his grandfather, Pete Herchelroth, have been out "busting our hump," stretching clear protective plastic over rows of vegetables.
"It's super laborious," Culton said.
But you have to shield sensitive plants like artichokes and peppers when overnight temperatures sink to the 30s (Sunday and Monday) and 20s (early April).
And you can't set them out too early.
"On days like this," added Culton on Wednesday, when the sun was shining, "You want to take your shirt off and run around in the fields ... It's hard for farmers to wait."
Would-be April corn planters have been going out at the crack of day and sinking meat thermometers a couple of inches into the ground, hoping for the magic minimum -- 50 degrees.
That's roughly the cutoff for safe sowing, said Leon Ressler, district director of Penn State Cooperative Extension for Chester, Lancaster and Lebanon counties.
If it's colder and also wet, Ressler said, the sprouting kernels are susceptible to root rot.
"This year, people have been holding their horses, recognizing the risks."
Local farmers say moisture levels are fine.
But not even the four-day warm spell that started April 8 has heated up the soil much.
Minimum daily dirt readings have been stuck in the 30s statewide, said Joel Hunter, an extension agronomist in Crawford County.
"We're moving like a herd of turtles" toward 50, he added. "We've only got 10 degrees to go but they're an important 10 degrees."
Fortunately, according to Hunter, barley, spring oats and forage plants can germinate in 40-degree soil. Soybeans aren't planted until later in the season.
And maize does have some latitude. Some farmers are already getting it in.
"We're not quite half done with our corn planting," said Chad Hurst of Oregon Dairy.
The Manheim Township farm began seeding nearly 1,000 acres on April 10, "fairly early" in Hurst's judgment, but not radically so.
"We took a chance because the ground was dry," said Hurst, who is mindful that yields fall off if you delay planting too long.
"An old farmer's tale," he said, "you lose a bushel a day after the 10th of May."
More chilly air flows from the Atlantic and Canada are likely into early May, according to the Millersville University Weather Center.
Still, Ressler pointed out, the weather is actually nearer normal than it has been for several years.
Wanner recalled getting 20 inches of snow on April 19 in the early 1970s. He said he remains unconcerned by the current cold snap.
Culton was preparing to plant field corn on his 53-acre farm Wednesday.
But he said he does worry about ever-wilder weather fluctuations.
"I have backup plans," said Culton, reflecting on losing valuable tomato starts earlier in his career. "I grow way more plants than I need. I stagger them."
He tries to learn from mistakes.
"You don't stick your hand in the beehive too many times without a smoker," he said.
"We're moving like a herd of turtles. We've only got 10 degrees to go but they're an important 10 degrees."