Return to
Windy Meadow Farm
    Horses and Riding
  Farm Life
List of other articles on by:




The Rainy Spring of 1996

Michael Hillman

They say farmers always complain about the weather, but this year they have a lot to complain about. The winter that never seemed to end was quickly followed by one of the wettest springs in recent memory. According to Joe Wivell, who's been farming almost 450 acres east of Emmitsburg since 1951, on a typical year, farmers in this area can usually count on getting into their fields in late April or the beginning of May. This year, however, most were lucky if they were able to start their spring planting in June. "It seemed as if almost every other day we had rain and when the ground did manage to dry out almost enough to till, it would rain again and we would be back to square one."

Spring showers soon turned into summer monsoons and those farmers that were lucky enough to get their corn crops in, suddenly found themselves faced with the dilemma of trying to harvest oats, barley and wheat crops from swampy fields. Last year most fields were rock hard by the end of June. This year, almost every field had some part with standing water. According to Frank Williams, who's been custom-farming over 3500 acres around Emmitsburg since 1966, there are fields even today that have not to dried. Those farmers who risked harvesting grain crops early in the spring, found that the damage done to the field as a result of the tractors sinking into the mud, far outweighed the benefit of retrieving the crops.

Like most farmers, Frank Williams was only able to harvest a fraction of his spring grain crops. Typically, Frank pulls in 25,000 bales of straw, this year he felt lucky to have brought in 5,000. Seventy-five acres of wheat simply rotted away in the field and almost 60% of Frank's barley crop were lost. Other farmers, like Joe Wivell, lost complete fields of oats, barley and wheat. The late spring and continuous summer rains also interfered with efforts to retrieve lush crops of timothy and alfalfa hay as well. 

According to John Davis, who raises beef cattle and farms 300 acres west of Emmitsburg, "Every time the conditions were right to cut hay, the weather man would predict rain. When the forecast called for clear weather, you could be sure that it would be raining the day after the hay was cut." In the end, Mr. Davis, who on a typical year brings in almost 15,000 bales of hay, was only able to make 1,800 bales, less than 15% of normal. Sixty acres of the nicest timothy he has seen in a long time just rotted away because the fields were simply too wet to get into.

The story is pretty much the same with other farmers in the area. All across the country fields bare the grim reminder of weather predictions gone bad. Row after row of hay cut and raked on sunny days, lay rotting as a result of unexpected rains. Even as late as two weeks ago, farmers were still losing vast fields of desperately needed. Joe Wivell, who completely lost faith in the weatherman, lost 60% of his hay crop. Hay barns that should be packed full for the upcoming winter are less then half full.

In addition, because a lot of hay fields went unharvested in the spring, weeds, which are usually kept under control, have taken over once productive fields. And, while the weeds have little nutritional value, farmers are now cutting and bailing out of desperation. According to Joe Wivell Jr., the weeds and other fibrous plant growth will provide bulk filler material for the dairy and beef herds, and what they don't eat, can be used a bedding.

The mud also played havoc on the health of the animals. The mud in cow paths in local dairy farms, always notorious for being at least ankle deep, could be measure in feet, not inches. Cases of thrush and mastitis were up markedly. Local blacksmiths did a booming business replacing lost horseshoes, often being called back twice a week to replace the same shoe. Rain rot and white line disease were prevalent everywhere.

The one bright spot for our neighborhood farmers is the corn crop that they had such a hard time planting in the spring. For those fields that did not turn into swamps, the frequent rains of the summer resulted in spectacular corn growth. Unfortunately, dry fields were the exception, not the rule this year, and for some farmers, upwards of 30% of the corn seed rotted in the wet ground. Nonetheless, according to both Joe Wivell and Frank William, the corn harvest is turning out to be the best in recent memory. While each will be able to make up some of their losses from corn surpluses, it will not make up for the loses in other crops.

To add insult to injury, last year’s dry summer in the Midwest caused a significant drop in crop yields, forcing feed producers to draw upon rapidly diminishing grain reserves, which has resulted in marked increase in feed prices. For some farmers, feed has gone up as much as three to four thousand dollars a month, while the price farmers get for their milk remains, in relative terms, at a near all-time low. If that isn't bad enough, farmers are having a tough time getting seeds, at any price, for crops that need to be planted in the next few weeks. Barley seems the scarcest, but wheat seed is also in short supply.

At the local farmers co-op, 1997 calendars are the hottest selling item, and most farmers will not weep long when the new year is rung in. With the spirit that has made farmers the backbone of this country, all are keeping a positive attitude and are looking forward to a better year next year. Farmers all around Emmitsburg are taking advantage of the current good weather and getting an early start on their fall planting. With the weather as unpredictable as it has been, don't be surprised to see our neighbors tilling and seeding their fields long after most of us have turned in for the night.

Only winter stands between the farmers and a rich harvest next spring. And while last winter was pretty rough, every indication so far this year is that this winter will be brutal. The woolly-bear caterpillars, usually a good indicator of the length and severity of winter, are woolly and almost completely black. Worse, they seem to be killing themselves in mass on Route 15, trying to head south before the winter hits. If that isn't an harbinger of the severity of the winter to come, nothing is.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman