July 20, 2013 6:04:51 PM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
For thousands of years, farmers have studied the sky, wondering when the next rain will fall. This growing season, Lowndes County farmers haven't had to do much wondering.
An abundance of rainfall so far this year, particularly in July, has created problems of its own. It's the precarious nature of farming: Pray for rain, then curse the weeds that come with it.
Patrick Gard of Spurlock Farms in Columbus said he has had trouble this season with tomatoes due to too much rain. Gard said his tomatoes are grown off the ground on terraces but he does not use an irrigation system to control the water supply. If too much rain falls, the ripening tomatoes will split, he said.
"Your tomatoes have reached full size and they start to ripen and you get all the rain and they split," Gard said. "You get buckets full of tomatoes that are split. For every bucket full of tomatoes that I pick to sell, I get half a bucket that I have to feed to the chickens because they aren't fit to sell."
Holding a tomato with multiple splits throughout, Gard said, "In two days, this tomato, if you don't sell it or eat it, will go to animal feed."
Sandi Peeks of Steens has a three-acre garden where she grows a multitude of vegetables. Thursday, Peeks was selling beans and tomatoes out of the back of her pickup truck at the Hitching Lot Farmers' Market. Like Gard, Peeks grows her tomatoes on terraces and said she does not use an irrigation system.
"I don't have any kind of irrigation but the Good Lord and we've had plenty of the Good Lord's irrigation this year," Peeks said.
The National Weather Service is reporting a total rainfall of 8.4 inches in Lowndes County for the month of July so far. Last July, the entire month saw just 7.4 inches of rain. It is a trend that has held since the beginning of the year. So far, Lowndes County has recorded 46.16 inches of rain for the year, just five inches less than was recorded in the entire 2012.
Oddly, that abundance of rain hasn't been seen in neighboring Oktibbeha County, which has had just two inches of rain in July, roughly a quarter of what Lowndes County has received.
Anna Weber, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson, said the heavy rain fall isolated in Lowndes County can be attributed to scattered thunderstorms.
"During our summer months we have scattered and isolated thunderstorms all the time," Weber said. "It seems like this year, Columbus has had a lot of rainfall from those."
Although Lowndes County is already a few inches shy of last year's total rainfall, Weber said it isn't quite record-breaking. Yet.
"The first couple of months this year were really wet and were approaching record rainfall for the winter months, but it's kind of evened out now," she said.
Charlie Stokes, the area agronomy agent with the Mississippi State Extension Service, watches the rainfall as closely as the anxious farmer. Stokes said the area had a wet spring which led to difficulty during the planting months.
"We've got a really late plant of crop," Stokes said. "We had a really wet spring and a lot of growers didn't even get their crops planted. For the ones that did, they're probably, on average, a month behind."
For Peeks, the wet spring was frustrating.
"It's been horrible," she said. "We couldn't get the tractors in the fields. We're about a month behind with everything. If (the rain) hits before you get it planted, it's going to take longer to get it in the ground. If you can get it in the ground before the rain comes, you're doing real good."
While Peeks is complaining about the amount of rain, Stokes said he and commercial farmers are thankful.
"When we started off, getting ready to plant, everybody wanted it to stop. Now, when you have 90- to-95-degree weather for several weeks, it doesn't take long to dry the ground out. Rain is always welcome when the ground is dry. The last rains have helped them a lot as far as that goes. We've had some hot weather but we did seem to get a few days of cooler weather and that helps," he said. "It's been scattered but most people in Lowndes and south Monroe County have caught some timely rainfall."
Rain = pests
M.C. Ellis with Mayhew Tomato Farms said he, too, got off to a late start but is grateful for the rain.
"We don't ever criticize rain. At our farm, I don't think we could ever get too much," he said. "We got off to a very late start, the ground was cold and wet and we didn't have a growing climate but all in all we're doing OK."
Ellis said the rain itself has not affected his crop but with the rain comes unwanted insects.
"That moisture causes vegetation and that vegetation causes insects," Ellis said. "Rainy, cloudy weather. The humidity, in particular ,creates problems. We have a large vegetable farm, 50 acres. While it's not huge, we have a regular spraying schedule we try to suppress when the bugs get to a certain level. We try to monitor that situation."
While he has not been affected by the recent heavy rains, Ellis recognized that smaller farms and back-yard gardeners could be struggling.
"Home-owners with vegetable gardens have really been hurting," he said. "What happens is, grass takes over and they're not licensed to buy (insecticides)."
Peeks said due to the rain, her butter beans have been infested with bugs this season.
"My butter beans, they were drowned just as soon as I got them in the ground," Peeks said. "I don't know if I'll have speckled butter beans this year or not because of the rain. If you look, it's really affected a lot of the crops. You can look at the shells and tell. This rain has brought more critters, insects, whatever you want to call them, at the first of the planting season. They usually come later," she said.
She said aphids have attached to her butter beans and while the vegetables may be fine to eat once they've been cleaned, they look unappetizing to shoppers.
"The aphids and such were here before the crops started coming," Peeks said. "An aphid is a little bug. They are kind of like ants attacking your fields with this water coming. There is nothing wrong with the beans, but people don't want them and I don't blame them. I wouldn't eat that. This batch, I'll have to pick through and it will probably go to the chickens."
Judy McLain was shopping at the Farmer's Market Thursday in search of tomatoes, squash, peas, eggplant and butter beans. A Farmers' Market regular, McLain said she has still been able to find what she needs but noted that some vegetables normally available this time of year have not yet made an appearance at the market.
"I haven't had any problem but it's a different variety," she said. "They're slower coming in, like peas."
As McLain was browsing a selection of bell peppers, a slight rain began to fall. Looking around at the sparse crowd of shoppers, she questioned if the rain was discouraging people coming to the market.
"The rain slows people down coming in and letting them sell the produce," McLain said. "They need to sell this produce because they'll have to carry it back home and put it up or do something."
More rain need
for soybeans, cotton
While Peeks' butter bean crop may be in jeopardy, Stokes said he hopes the state's cotton and soybean crop will benefit from the added moisture.
"For cotton and soybeans were going to have to have timely rainfall through August and September," he said. "During that time, those crops are going to be in the reproductive stage when we decide their yield. When they go into that stage they have to have moisture."
Stokes said cotton currently sells for 85-cents per pound while soy beans sell for $12 a bushel.
Without ample rain, commercial farmer and the state's economy could suffer.
"A farmer always says never turn back a July or August rain so he'll normally take those," Stokes said. "Without enough rain, your (yield) significantly decreases. You can go to half-a-bushel (per acre) if you don't get a lot of rain. You don't make any profit at that. It's not a pretty picture. You're not going to put in money in your pocket by any means."
For Gard, the knowledge that he could lose money is always in the back of his mind.
"For every pound of tomatoes that I don't sell, it's three dollars lost," Gard said. "I'm concerned every year. Money is always tight. With fertilizer cost and time and energy put in. The extra rain is a blessing and a curse. You need the rain to grow everything, but you get too much. There is such a thing is too much."
As the season comes to a close, undoubtedly Gard will spend the next several weeks the same way as generations of farmers before him -- staring at the sky and wondering about the rain.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.