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Farmers soak up the sun, hope for mild summer

A recent stretch of sunny days breaks prior year cycles of cold, wet spring weather


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - Spotlight Photo: Robin JohnsonSo far, this year’s growing season is shaping up to be a lot warmer and brighter than the past two years, which were characterized by gray skies and heavy rainfall.

The warm weather may be exciting for weekend gardeners, but experienced farmers know that when one problem disappears, another presents itself.

“Farmers are rarely happy with the weather,” said Marie Gadotti, who owns Gadotti Farming alongside her husband, Joseph. “We’re getting our crops in earlier than last year, but the worrisome thing for us is: Are we going to have a very dry summer?”

Gadotti pointed to November and December record rainfalls in Columbia County, which made the ground so wet that many farmers had to delay preparations for the coming spring.

Now, with the trend-breaking warm weather, some farmers’ concerns have shifted from the threat of wet, cold weather, to the threat of a warm, dry spring that cooks crops and hardens soil.

Last year in Columbia County there were 7 inches of rain during March alone. This year, March saw only 2 inches, said Chip Bubl, Oregon State University’s Agricultural Extension agent based in St. Helens. “In general, we should have less disease pressure on food crops,” he said. “Most crops are more prone to disease with more moisture.”

Bob Egger, co-owner of The Pumpkin Patch on Sauvie Island, said the ground has been drier than it was June 1 of last year. “So far, everything has been moving out on schedule. It’s definitely better than the last three years,” he said.

Egger said the soil is dry enough to till and plant. He anticipates U-pick strawberries to be available by June 7.

Both Egger and Gadotti said that, last year at this time, they were either idle or maintaining farm equipment, waiting for the rain to let up. “What we want is a gradual heat increase,” Gadotti said. “Too much heat too fast will make your soil rock hard.”

Still, Egger said he prefers the heat. “I can move irrigation pipe,” he said. “I’d take hot and dry every year.”

Gadotti’s crops, however, are more dependent on the weather. One of the main crops at Gadotti Farming is wheat, a crop that isn’t typically irrigated.

Instead, the Gadottis rely on a consistent amount of rainfall to keep the soil moist.Gadotti said she is constantly asking herself the question, “Will we have enough rainfall to keep our crops growing?”

“It’s a Catch 22, we really haven’t had much moisture since January and we’re way down on rainfall,” Gadotti said. “We’re supposed to have low rainfall for the rest of the summer.”

Warm days typically mean there is no cloud cover to trap the day’s heat once the sun goes down, making the nights very cold and presenting even more problems. “With the threat of overnight frost, we can’t plant our corn. Even though it’s ready to go out,” she said.

For the past few years, Gadotti Farming has been forced to plant late, which pushed back the harvest so far they lost a lot of yields to sprouted grain.

But weather alone isn’t the only barrier to a healthy crop — there are also wildlife challenges to consider.

When weather is too cold or too hot, it often drives wildlife onto farms where vegetation is more plentiful. “September was dry and had no rainfall,” Gadotti said. “We planted our clover crop in the spring and the geese hit it so bad, they just devoured our clover crop. There’s no hunting at that time and the geese had nothing else to eat.”

Now they plant their clover crop earlier so that it can be harvested before the geese become desperate, Gadotti said.

This year, the Gadottis took the chance of preparing their soil early—during a short window of dry weather—despite the threat of more moisture coming through and turning their soft, freshly-tilled fields into mud.

The gamble paid off and now — weather permitting —they will be planting what they can.

“We were planning on doing a big planting last Sunday, but we were rained out at the last minute,” Gadotti said. “We have to deal with this all the time. Mother Nature really directs us. It’s the life of a farmer; you’ve gotta be on standby.”