Last year at this time farm fields were soggy from rain. The bad weather hit dairy farms at a time when expenses outstripped income and it caused vegetable farmers to lose entire crops.
It’s a different story this year: Milk prices are high and the weather is good.
In her job as Agronomy Outreach Professional with the University of Vermont Extension Service, Kirsten Workman visits farms throughout Addison and Chittenden counties. She remembers well the rains of last year.
“Not only was there a lot of it, but it was coming in large, massive amounts in short periods of time,” Workman says. “A lot of our vegetable producers were seeing total crop failures in some cases.”
Crops can be replanted when they’re lost to spring rains, but that drives up the cost of production and often results in lower yields.
This year hasn’t been perfect. A cool spring delayed some crops and pushed back haying by dairy farmers, and a hail storm this spring damaged crops in parts of central and southern Vermont.
Differences in local weather, soil conditions and farming practices make it difficult to make blanket statements about any growing season, but Workman says this one is getting generally positive reviews.
“Farmers that I talk to in general are pretty happy with how things are going,” she says. “They’re able to be busy every day, getting things done. Even stuff that’s a little late from spring, they’re getting caught up on at this point.”
Workman says at the moment conditions are close to normal both in terms of temperature and rainfall.
Vern Grubinger, the berry and vegetable specialist with the extension service, says there are always pests and diseases to contend with but so far it’s shaping up to be a good season.
Grubinger says good and bad growing seasons don’t tend to cause the price of local products to fluctuate.
“My observation is growers have their prices in mind and they tend to stick to them,” he says. “It’s not something that you jack up when there’s a shortage or drop them when there’s a glut.”
Grubinger says vegetable and berry growers have learned that diversity is one key to avoiding a disastrous season; if one crop fails, another may do well.
Growers are also increasingly using high tunnel hoop houses to extend the season to boost sales and guard against bad weather.
“There’s sort of a market rationale for the extended growing season and the utilization of high tunnels and greenhouses and I think there’s really value in being able to control rain and temperature and moisture by having production under cover,” says Abbey Willard, local foods administrator with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets.
Willard says because there are many new growers in Vermont, a profitable year without weather setbacks provides an opportunity to reinvest.
For dairy farmers the favorable conditions are not just weather related. Milk prices have been at historic highs.
Mike Farmer is senior vice president at Yankee Farm Credit, an agricultural credit and financial services cooperative. He says that for the first time in recent years, dairy farmers are able to get ahead on loan payments and spend money on projects and purchases they’ve been putting off.
“We’re seeing debt reduction for sure. Extra money is coming in, they’re paying operating loans before they’re due, they’re paying down capitol notes,” he says. “And then getting caught up on deferred maintenance, both buildings and equipment.”
Farmer says he’s not seeing much in the way of new equipment purchases or new building construction by dairy farmers.
That’s because they know milk prices will change. Just like the weather.