|Many crops get a late start, but ag can still catch up
As April draws to a close, Oregonians can almost count on one hand the number of days this month without rain and count on the other hand the number of days the thermometer has reached the 60 degree mark. The combination of wet weather and cold temperatures has delayed many farmers statewide from preparing the fields and planting the crops while pushing back the early growth and development of perennials and tree fruits.
"Everyone has been champing at the bit to get their farming season started," says Jim Cramer, administrator of the Oregon Department of Agriculture's Commodity Inspection Division. "A lot of our producers have been itching to get out there and work in the field or the orchard, but it appears most everyone is behind schedule. It has been too wet as far as planting crops goes and too cold as far as pushing the bloom goes."
For agriculture, it is difficult to ever experience a "normal" weather year. That's especially true in Oregon with such a diversity of commodities, topography, and micro-climates. But there is little doubt that the state, like much of the rest of the nation, has significantly strayed from what is usually expected.
For Cramer and the field staff he oversees, it's Oregon's inability to transition to warmer temperatures that separates this spring from most.
"What is most strange are the low temperatures," says Cramer. "We've had just a handful of days in April above 60 degrees. In the past, we've had years when more than half of the month was over 60 and even above 70 degrees."
As an example, with just a few days left in the month, Portland has reported only four days above 60 degrees and only seven days with no precipitation. Historically, the average high temperature for April is 60.5 degrees. This year, the average high for April is only 54.9 degrees. The normal amount of rainfall for the month is 2.64 inches. Portland has already recorded 4.39 inches of rain in April.
As always, agricultural producers in certain parts of Oregon are faring better than others. But in general, tillage, planting, and other field work has ranged from slow to impossible as cold, wet weather has persisted. Fertilizing and spraying activities have been challenging. According to the Oregon field office of USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, vegetable crops are already late going into the ground which could result in a late harvest once again this year. Fruit trees and berry crops have been in various stages of bloom throughout the Willamette Valley but, in most cases, were also behind schedule. Even livestock is impacted as cold and wet conditions have slowed pasture growth statewide.
Some problems can be traced back to the beginning of winter. Fruit orchards in Milton-Freewater got hit hard in November when temperatures dropped to -12 degrees or colder. Evidence of the cold snap came a couple of weeks ago when orchard blooms wilted almost immediately even with a relatively warm couple of days. USDA's Farm Services Agency and OSU Extension predict high crop losses this year in Milton-Freewater- as much as 80 percent for cherries, 40 percent for plums and prunes, and 30 percent for apples and wine grapes.
"It's not pretty here for tree fruit this year, November nearly killed us," says ODA's Kirby Grant, district manager in Milton-Freewater for the Shipping Point Inspection Program. Not that far away, however, is the district office in Hermiston, also in Umatilla County, where potatoes and onions are the major crops.
"Things aren't really that bad here, the mood of the growers is good to decent," says district manager Bill Lowrance. "Overwinter onions may be a little behind. But for most growers, there is little to no impact as long as the cold and wet doesn't continue much longer."
Farther east in Malheur County, it's cooler and damper than normal, with some flooding in low lying crop ground. The onions, potatoes, and sugar beets that would normally be planted by now are late.
"Some growers say they are a month behind, others only a couple of weeks late," says Ontario district manager Casey Prentiss. "If the weather warms and dries soon, the impact should not be significant. This area of the state depends on the high temperatures to create the size in both the onion and potato crops. If cool, wet weather persists, crop size and quality could be diminished. But most growers believe things will turn around."
In Klamath County, potatoes, onions, and mint crops have had to deal with very wet conditions and a heavy late snowpack. After drought conditions a year ago, growers are now at the other end of the spectrum.
"Farmers are in the process of field preparation, but it has been very difficult because of rain or snow almost daily," says district manager Doug Beam. "It's still a little early here, but if this trend continues, we could see some problems. We are more than ready for a bit of dry weather. Everyone is ready to start farming."
Cool, wet conditions have slowed crop bud development in Hood River orchards. In the Willamette Valley, some growers are deciding not to plant spring wheat this year because of adverse planting conditions.
But there is a silver lining in each of the numerous clouds that have opened up over Oregon this year. Combined with cool temperatures, the statewide snowpack is strong and should provide an ample supply of water for irrigation. That's welcome news to many growers, especially in the Klamath Basin.
And of course, there is plenty of time for the weather to change into a prolonged period of warm and dry.
"It's way too early to predict any doom and gloom for agriculture this year," says ODA's Cramer. "Crops have a habit of making up for lost time. Mother nature often makes up for a multitude of sins, like weather."
For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.
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