Farmers Who Once Longed for Rain Now Swamped With Crop Problems

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2008

Avis Turner parked her beat-up pickup, nicknamed the "Puddle Hopper," on a hill near a cornfield and pointed back at a large tomato patch near the farmhouse.

"Last year, you would see red from here," she said gesturing toward the green, leafy patch on her farm in southern Prince George's County. "There would be so many ripe tomatoes that we couldn't keep up picking them."

The last two weeks of July are usually when Maryland and Virginia farmers see peak harvests and outdoor markets are packed with colorful produce, but this year the crops are at least two weeks behind schedule in many parts of the region because of massive rainstorms and cool weather this spring.

That rain was a welcome relief for farmers who have endured droughtlike conditions the past few years. In August, all of Maryland and parts of Virginia were declared federal drought disaster areas.

But the added moisture has created its own problems on some farms. Violent rainstorms washed away early plantings. The cool weather slowed growth. Then soggy soil bred fungus that killed off some squash and zucchini plants; berries and melons swelled and lost their intense flavor; and farm equipment routinely got stuck in the mud.

"Two weeks is not devastating for farmers," said W.S. Covington III, a member of Prince William County's board of supervisors who grows hay and raises beef cattle. "Sure, the rain could have been spread out more, but it looks like it's going to be a good year for farmers. . . . And you don't get to say that often."

Customers often don't realize this when they swing by the local farmers market in search of perfectly red July tomatoes and abundant stacks of cucumbers, squash and zucchini. Add in that Maryland officials have dubbed this week the "Buy Local Challenge" and are urging Marylanders to add at least one locally grown product to their diet.

So at the markets, farmers find themselves yet again explaining the unpredictability of agriculture and the close correlation between successful crops and weather. Even weather that happened months ago.

"We had people asking in mid-June, 'Where's the corn? Where are the tomatoes?' " Turner said. "We've had to educate our customers to be patient. We've told them that it could be August. They just have to be patient."

Usually, July is the busiest month of the year for Turner and her husband, Andrew Turner, who own the Thank God It's Fresh (TGIF) vegetable farm in Upper Marlboro. The couple sells produce at four markets each week, including one in Falls Church, and is constantly picking produce and replanting to stretch their growing season into the early fall.

This time last year, Turner recalled, the picking season was so hectic she didn't have time to change from her farm clothes into her market clothes as she raced from the fields to the small hand truck packed with baskets of produce.

But yesterday, the truck was not even half-full for a market in Riverdale Park, and Turner had time for a leisurely mug of coffee. The couple has held off on hiring two of their summer workers because there is nothing for them to pick yet. Luckily, the sweet corn and cantaloupe are flourishing; otherwise, the Turners' stand would be even more sparse.

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