After a rain-soaked 2018, farmers brace for another wet year
Pennsylvania farmers battled unrelenting rainfall last year, only to be met with paltry fields of crops and sickened animals. 2019 is also off to a watery start.
During an extremely rainy 2018, Pennsylvania farmers say, their crops were waterlogged and ruined, livestock fell ill or died from moisture-related sickness, and profits fell for many.
The rainfall, meteorologists say, hit near-record levels in some areas of the state.
“This affected my animals,” said Lorraine Welker, who owns Welker Farm, a 21-acre property near Sunbury, Northumberland County. “We lost one of our breeder beef. She got stuck in the mud and couldn’t be saved. We lost all our fruit. Peaches, plums, and our pumpkins, too.”
Some farmers said they planted and replanted, only to see their work and money washed away. Livestock developed the intestinal disease coccidiosis and hoof rot, a painful infection often caused by standing in wet conditions. The rain hampered hay harvesting, driving up prices for bales. Persistent rain and lingering humidity caused bales to prematurely mold. Floods took out fencing.
And the mud. Farmers say it was seemingly endless.
At Snouts & Sprouts, Mary Benton’s family farm near Pottstown, the summer’s many sudden downpours caught her hundreds of baby chickens by surprise, rendering them unable to move, she said.
“One super-fast cold storm hit in June, and my husband and I had to run around in the crashing rain picking up 600 drenched 5-week-old chicks who had been out ranging, but froze as soon as the rain hit them,” she said, adding that the deluge came too fast for the chicks to scramble for cover. “We got all of them back into our heated greenhouse, and most survived but some didn’t — they got too cold.”
Wet chickens burn more calories than dry birds, she said, so she and her husband dished out extra feed. At harvest, the chickens still turned out smaller than usual.
“This year was terrible for pasture-raised chickens,” she said. “Way more work, way more time, way less profit.”
Holly Bortfeld, who owns Felton Homestead in Felton, York County, said the rain was the worst she had seen in decades.
“The rain decimated our first planting of vegetable and herb crops,” she said. “The plants just rotted. Never seen anything like it.”
Last year, the Philadelphia region was deluged. Chester County saw 69.2 inches of rain, Montgomery County 67.7, Philadelphia 66.7, Bucks County 66.3 and Delaware County 66.1, according to the National Weather Service. In New Jersey, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties recorded between 61.9 and 63.4 inches of rain.
On average, it rains about 41 inches per year in Pennsylvania, but rainfall levels like those of 2018 are projected for 2019, said Steve DiMartino, a meteorologist with NY NJ PA Weather.
Each county in the region saw at least an 16-inch increase in rainfall compared with previous years, according to the National Weather Service. Chester County topped the list with a 22-inch jump, although its neighbor to the northwest, Berks County, recorded 74.6 inches of rain, a 38.5-inch spike.
Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, like in Harrisburg, rainfall records were broken for the first time since the late 1960s, with about a foot of rain in July alone. It rained 9.72 inches in July 1969.
So far, 2019 has logged a little over an inch of rain in the Philadelphia area, DiMartino said.
“We’ve seen it before," DiMartino said of the abundant rain, but “the global warming impacts or enhances it.”
In 2018, the planet was in a “warm, neutral state," he said, with water and atmospheric temperatures nearing “true El Niño conditions." During an El Niño, warm water in the equatorial Pacific changes direction and flows east, displacing cooler waters and creating an area of warmth in the central and eastern Pacific that turns the air muggier. Those atmospheric changes impact the fast-moving jet streams that envelop the Earth.
“Think of it like a fire hose loaded with moisture,” he said of the weather changes in the Northeast.
He can’t say with certainty if deluges are the new normal.
“Whether every year will be above normal is hard to say," he said, "but the potential will certainly be there.”
For now, some farmers temper the fallout caused by last year’s rain by focusing on the few things that went right on their properties.
“I am just glad that we kept the calves in our barn to keep them out of the rain,” Welker said.
" I chose to only do the replant inside my high tunnel, so at least we had a crop the second go-round," Bortfeld said.
Still, Bortfeld said of the year: “Total nightmare.”