Rain is blessing, curse for farmers' crops in Tennessee

Rain is blessing, curse for farmers' crops in Tennessee

September 1st, 2013 by Shelly Bradbury in Business Around the Region

Jennifer Harrell harvests okra in her half-acre garden in Apison. The abundance of rain this summer has caused Harrell to lose some of her usual crops.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Rain is a tricky thing for a farmer - too little and the crops die. Too much and the crops die.

"I've lost a crop because things have been too wet," said Jennifer Harrell, a small-scale farmer at Fresh Green Farm in Apison. "And then the cool weather seemed to slow down the corn, the okra and some of my beans because it just hasn't been as sunny and warm as we typically have."

But, she adds in almost the same breath, it's better than a drought.

"The nice thing is you don't have to water and you're not worried about drought conditions," she said.

As a Chattanooga summer with nearly 20 inches more rain than normal fades into harvest season, some Tennessee farmers are seeing high yields while others are fighting insects and disease to preserve the state's $1.3 billion-a-year worth of crops.

Tennessee corn production is projected to reach near-record levels this year. The USDA National Agricultural Statistic Service Tennessee Field Office expects corn to hit 146 bushels per acre, close to the record yield of 148 bushels per acre and well above the five-year average of 124 bpa.

Soybeans are also on track for a better-than-normal harvest. The crop is projected at 42 bushels per acre, above the five-year average of 36 bushels per acre.

But rain has put a damper on some farmers, said Jerry Lamb, UT extension agent in Rhea County. He expects the county's field crop yields to be down by about 20 percent this year.

"One of the biggest things that we've had is a lot of the low areas drowned out," he said. "In field crops, like corn and soybeans, the crop isn't even there, the plant has been killed. On the high ground, if it was planted early, it will do very well. But if it was in the low ground, it will do very poorly. It all depends on location and time of planting."

Still, crops planted in that sweet spot are looking good, said Jim Heep, agricultural statistician at the NASS Tennessee field office. The agency's latest weekly crop report puts 87 percent of the state's corn and 83 percent of soybeans in good or excellent condition.

"What's standing out there right now is real good," Heep said. "But some people got flooded, or they didn't get their plants in."

At Apple Valley Orchards in Cleveland, Chuck McSpadden said the rain has been only a minor hassle.

"It's caused rot in a few of our varieties," he said. "Most of our varieties are fine but we've lost a few. I think most apples will be larger this year."

The crops hardest hit by the rain have been vegetables and fruits, said JC Rains, UT extension agent in Bledsoe County.

"The rain is not such a good thing for [commercial vegetables] because it's like overhead watering your plants and with that comes fungus and bacterial diseases," he said. "They've had a little more disease pressure than normal."

Over in Rhea County, Lamb said he's gotten about 50 percent more calls about insects and disease this summer than a drier summer. But he thinks smaller farmers tend to be more affected by heavy rain than the large-scale commercial operations.

"Home gardeners don't have access to chemicals and processes that can solve a lot of the problems," he said. "Most of your commercial folks have a bigger arsenal they can pull from."

The rain knocked out about a third of Franklin Taylor's corn at Lamon Farm in Cleveland, he said. And his cantaloupes and watermelon aren't as sweet as they would be in hotter, drier weather.

"But," he said, "overall it's been a good season, just a rainy one."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.