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Cold, damp winter causes farmers to delay planting

Monday, March 31, 2014, 1:01 a.m.

While winter weary residents are rejoicing warming air temperatures, Alle-Kiski Valley area farmers are more concerned about the dirt.

Lingering effects of the winter season will cause planting delays this year, according to AccuWeather.

Damp soil left over from winter, melting snow and lagging temperatures mean a lot of places are going to have a slow planting period, AccuWeather senior meteorologist Dale Mohler said.

“We've gotten rid of the snow, and that's important,” Mohler said. “We need to get the soil to warm up. If the soil is damp, it warms slower than if it were dry.

“Soil temperatures must be warm enough to support whatever crop you are planting,” he said.

For corn, that's 50 degrees; for soybeans, it's at least 54.

Hil Schramm said he normally starts planting sweet corn at Schramm Farms and Orchards in Penn Township, Westmoreland County, on April 1, but not this year.

“There's no way that's going to happen. The ground is too cold,” he said.

Schramm said the ground had begun to warm up, but the last cold snap undid that, and the top couple of inches froze again.

Corn will have to be planted by April 12 to be ready for the Fourth of July.

“Everyone wants fresh local sweet corn for the Fourth of July,” he said.

Farmers across the state “are probably getting a little bit antsy,” said Mark O'Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

“For the most part, a lot of farmers have been delayed in getting their fields ready for the upcoming growing season because of this long, cold, snowy winter,” O'Neill said. “Right now, farmers usually begin preparing their fields for planting. Because of weather conditions, many of them are behind in doing that.”

But, O'Neill said, farmers may have gotten used to getting an early start because of recent mild winters.

At Ambrose Farm in Winfield, Butler County, young plants, including onions, tomatoes and cabbage, are getting their start inside greenhouses. Steve Ambrose isn't expecting any delays.

“The ground is frozen very hard. That will take only a few days to thaw out,” he said. “Although we've had these mini snows and so forth, the last couple weeks we haven't had much precipitation, so the fields are going to dry out a little quicker than normal.”

While daytime highs are forecasted to rise into the 50s and 60s over this week, Schramm said nighttime lows need to stay above 50 to help warm the soil. Lows are forecasted to be colder than that, in the 30s to 40s.

“It's not critical yet, but it will be pretty soon,” he said. “If the ground is dry and the sun is shining, it can warm up in a week. The conditions have to be right for it to do that.”

One trick farmers use is to put black plastic down to warm the ground. Ambrose said he does that to get some sweet corn in a week earlier than most other plants.

Schramm said it adds a cost, so he doesn't do it unless he has to.

If alfalfa planting is delayed, farmers could get fewer cuttings over the growing season, lowering their yield, O'Neill said.

Many Pennsylvania dairy farmers grow alfalfa, corn and soybeans to make their own feed for their cows.

“If yields are down in these areas, they may be forced to buy the feed. That's money right off their bottom line,” O'Neill said.

In orchards, where virtually all fruit blossoms form in late August and have to live through the winter, peaches may have been hit hard because they are the least hardy. A lot of the blossoms may have frozen and died, Ambrose said.

Apples, pears and grapes tend to survive the winter, but can be damaged by spring frost if they bloom too early, Schramm said.

Tim Hileman, owner of Kistaco Farm in Armstrong County, said he hasn't checked his peach trees yet. He said he can get a better idea of how they are when they start blooming in a couple weeks.

“You can't check them all,” he said. “I try not to get caught up making guesses like that.”

On the upside, the hard winter does have its advantages. The freezing and thawing of the ground gets rid of slugs and other insects close to the surface, Ambrose said.

“Anything they can get rid of that's destructive is a good thing,” O'Neill said. “If it takes out some gophers, they'd probably be happy, too.”



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