Farmers fear wind, rain will damage crops

With his corn crop too young to cut, about all farmer Robin Chesmer can do is wait to see what Hurricane Irene brings and hope for the best.

"It could be devastating to our corn crop if we get some high winds," Chesmer said. He owns Graywall Farms in Lebanon, where he milks 400 cows and grows 500 acres of silage corn and another 500 acres of hay to feed them. "We've got our fingers crossed about how we're going to get through this."

Peter Orr, like Chesmer one of the farmers that make up the Farmers Cow dairy cooperative, is facing a similar prospect. He's done what he can on Fort Hill Farms, in Thompson, to prepare for the hurricane - making sure he's got fuel for generators, securing equipment - but can't do much about his biggest concern.

"There's nothing we can do for the crops at risk," he said.

Cutting his 300 acres of silage corn now, about two weeks before it would reach maturity, would leave him with inferior feed for his cows, far below what they should have for their protein and energy needs. A secondary concern for Orr is a corn maze that opened recently and brings hundreds of families to the farm each weekend through the fall. High winds and heavy rains could ruin the maze.

Both farmers have crop insurance that would help them recover from any losses.

"But it's a partial payment," Chesmer said. "By no means will it cover the full value." There has been one benefit to Hurricane Irene's anticipated arrival, Chesmer said. Retailers upped their usual milk orders by about 10 percent this week, expecting an influx of customers stocking up on groceries before the hurricane.

Another Farmers Cow member, Cushman Farms owner Jim Smith, said his 900 acres of silage corn "is nowhere near ready." He and other farmers said that because of a wet, cool spring, some of the corn crop is reaching maturity a bit later than normal.

They're also worried that rain expected today and over the weekend and during the hurricane will flood already wet fields, making it difficult to cut hay and making corn stalks more susceptible to toppling in heavy winds. Already this month, more than five inches of rain have fallen in the New London County area - about two inches more than the average - and rainfall totals for the year are more than four inches above normal.

At risk for Andy Burroughs, who owns B-Z-Bee Farm in Canterbury, is 30 acres of silage corn and another 60 acres of grain corn that would be milled for animal feed. He doesn't have crop insurance.

If the hurricane fells his crops, he said, "we'll pick up as much as we can off the ground."

"We've had losses before. We'll try to pick up the pieces."

The hurricane is also threatening fruit and vegetable crops. Karen Scott, who owns Scott's Yankee Farmer in East Lyme with her husband, Tom, said farm crews have been working to harvest as many ripe tomatoes as possible ahead of the storm. The fruit is vulnerable to getting blown off by heavy winds, or cracking if filled with too much water after a heavy rain.

To help sell the extra crop, she's reduced the price on baskets of tomatoes, but worries that if there are power losses in the region, people won't be making sauce and canning.

"I can still remember after Hurricane Gloria, it took weeks to get customers to come back," she said, because so many people were without power for an extended period.

Workers on the Scott farm also have been harvesting as many ripe peaches and apples as possible, she said. The farm was scheduled to start offering pick-your-own apples on Labor Day weekend.

Rick Holmberg, owner of Holmberg Orchards in Ledyard, said most of his apple crop "hasn't sized up yet," and fruit is still firmly attached to the tree branches, so he's hoping they'll withstand any high winds. The farm staff has picked as many ripe peaches as possible, he said, "but it doesn't do any good to pick fruit that isn't ripe."

Of all the kinds of weather his farm is vulnerable to, Holmberg said, "hurricanes are the ones we fear the most, because they can do the most physical damage, both to our trees and our buildings."

Lemke Valley Farms owner Paul Lemke said he and his farm crews spent most of the day Thursday harvesting as many tomatoes and peppers as possible. He's hoping for strong turnouts at the farmers market in New London today and in Waterford and Old Saybrook over the weekend, where he sells sweet corn, tomatoes and other vegetables.

"I'm afraid we'll lose all our late crops," said Lemke, adding that he does not have crop insurance.


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