“You got some asparagus!” Jan Goranson of Goranson Farm in Dresden said enthusiastically as she cashed out two customers at the Portland Farmers’ Market who seemed just as happy to see the vegetable as she was.

It was hard to remember on a recent sunny, nearly 70-degree market day that Maine farmers have been struggling with cold, wet and overcast weather all spring, “one of the cloudiest Mays in Portland since the 1950s,” according to a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in, aptly, Gray.

Their combined effects have delayed some early crops, asparagus among them, that normally would have been harvested two weeks earlier, Goranson said. Goranson Farms was one of the few farms that had any asparagus to sell at all.

According to farmers selling at the market, greens – like spinach, lettuce and kale that would normally be abundant at this time of year – are scarce.

To handle the wet weather, some local farms have had to delay planting crops, such as cucumbers and peas, because their fields are too wet. Others have had to change their plans, shifting crops they’d intended for one section of the farm to higher ground.

There was also a late snow melt to contend with this spring, and that has made the ground wetter than usual, according to the weather service. And the rainfall has come in spurts, with showers and thunderstorms striking frequently across the state.

In addition, the weather has been slightly cooler than normal. The average temperature this May in Portland so far is 51.1 degrees. The normal average temperature for the month is 53.9 degrees.

William Watson, the meteorologist with the weather service in Gray, said Portland has not actually had more total spring rainfall in April and May than it did last year, but it has had more rainy days.

The wet and cooler conditions this spring are a dramatic turn from last spring. A year ago, central and southern Maine experienced dry conditions from April through the first part of June before the rain started falling. The weather service at the time said the entire region a year ago was about to enter a period of widespread drought – the same pattern that emerged in 2017.

James Brown, another meteorologist with the weather service, said Sunday that 3.10 inches of rain have fallen so far this month in Portland, compared to 0.79 inches of rain in May 2018, which was the driest May on record. Brown said the normal rainfall average for May is 3.37 inches, putting rainfall for this month just below the average. The most precipitation for May ever recorded was 12.34 inches in 2006.

Brown said it has rained often this spring, but the showers and thunderstorms have been scattered and hard to predict where they might strike.

He also pointed out that winter snowstorms left a layer of snow that was very slow to melt. And even as the snow melted, the showers added more moisture to the mix on the ground.

Brown said it rained in Portland 13 days this month, 16 days in April and 11 days in March, which means it has rained 40 days out of a possible 91 days since March 1. Brown said a lot of the rain has come in the form of scattered, sometimes intense showers that strike one area, but leave neighboring towns dry.

FARMERS JUGGLE PLANTINGS

Elmer Elvin owns the Elvin Farm in Readfield. He said the wet, cool spring has delayed planting and compelled some farms to wait until conditions favor planting. “We’ll get a crop,” Elvin said. “We always do. You just have to be patient.”

At the Elvin Farm nothing is in the ground yet, not even the potatoes, which are the first crop to go in. “You can go play in the mud if you want to, but it doesn’t make any money and it doesn’t get the crops in any better. So just wait,” Elvin said.

Tom Stevenson of Stevenson Strawberry Farm in Wayne said he has had to juggle plantings between the showers and thunderstorms. The farm grows strawberries, peas, corn, melons and pumpkins.

“We had this freakish thunderstorm,” Stevenson said last week.  “It has been like this this spring, where we get rained out and have to finish planting later. It has been a scramble.”

This week’s forecast calls for mostly sunny, clear skies on Monday and Tuesday in Portland, with a chance of rain on Wednesday and Thursday.

Goranson said she has been able protect her asparagus and radishes this spring by a combination of planting them on higher ground and making use of floating row covers and high tunnels. But the fact she has been unable to plant her wetter fields has meant a squeeze for field space. The weather also has longer-term implications for the organic farm.

“We have totally changed some of our farm plan because we couldn’t get into the ground,” Goranson said. “We have a four-year crop rotation, and if you start changing it, it just makes it more difficult to have a plan for the following years, especially with growing organically. The crop rotation is super important in having healthy crops with reducing disease and insect protection, and because we grow organically, we don’t want to have those problems exacerbated.”

Farmers can’t plant when the soil is sodden, in part because equipment gets stuck, said Jason Lilley, who works on sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Just as problematic, heavy equipment can compact and damage the soil. “It takes years to build up the healthy soil,” Lilley said. “One pass with the tractor can set you way back.”

The fact that Maine has many small, diversified, direct-to-market farms puts it in a comparatively good situation, said Dave Colson, director of agricultural services at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in Unity. Maine’s small farmers typically do multiple plantings throughout the summer, so if a particular crop is delayed or smaller now, the farm’s entire fortunes are not resting on its success. And if the asparagus is a little late, he said, on the positive side the cooler weather may extend its season.

Other impacts of the weather may be less obvious. The bees don’t come out on cold, wet days, so pollination can be delayed, Colson said. At farms with beef or dairy cows, the big, heavy animals are sinking 6 to 10 inches into muddy fields, good for neither the fields nor the cows, he said. Also, “moist conditions (now) can be a vector for diseases showing up (later).”

“Something else to look forward to,” he said, laughing.

In Bowdoinham, the frequent rain has also affected Fairwinds Farm, which has struggled to plant vegetables, although the farm has “great ground and drainage,” said Cathy Karonis, who owns the farm with her husband. As at Goranson Farm, the couple have had to shift gears, planting seedlings in drier fields in response to the weather.

“As far as crops go, we have asparagus, which is good on drainage,” Karonis said. “We haven’t even put in our cucumbers yet – they’ve started, but they’re still in the greenhouse.”

Karonis said she brought less produce with her to the market than usual for this time of year. While she couldn’t quantify the difference, she said this spring she has “not as much variety and less quantity.”

At Bumbleroot Farm in Windham, crops that would have been planted a month ago in an ideal year are just being put in the ground now. Blame the rain and cold. Another weather-related impact, according to Blair Sando, an employee of the farm: Vegetables won’t grow as large as they would in a sunnier year.

Starting crops in greenhouses to ensure they’re ready for peak season can work for vegetables like cucumbers and onions, Karonis said. But some items, like grain corn and strawberries, don’t grow in greenhouses.

“We do grain corn, which we grind,” Karonis said. “Getting that stuff in (has been difficult) because you have a limited time to grow it; usually it’s before June. It’s been a little bit of a struggle because it’s been so wet.”

June is planting time for crops like winter squash and pumpkin, so “the difficulty is if this lingers for another month,” MOFGA’s Colson said. “The summer of 2009 was notorious for that. Everybody remembers 2009.”

But farmers at the market said they remain hopeful.

“We just try to be positive,” Karonis said. “Every year is going to be different, one way or another, and that’s the reason why we grow a lot of crops. If one thing doesn’t do well, hopefully the next thing will.”

Press Herald Staff Writer Dennis Hoey and Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Jessica Lowell contributed to this report.


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