Reaching through tangled browning leaves, Steve Vengtson, owner of Cold Spring Brook Farm in Berlin, plucked tomatoes off their vines and turned them over to show the mold and cracked skins plaguing this year’s harvest.
“We’re fortunate that most of our crops have survived… the main crops did well,” he said, noting that other farmers in the state have lost significant portions of their fields. “There’s still a lot of them that are good, but you’re picking them out of there.”
The season got off to a dry start in June and July, causing crops to shrivel until rain in August inundated the fields. Vengtson’s onions doubled in size and some of his tomatoes grew so fast their skins split. “We went from one extreme to another,” he said.
Crops growing close to the ground, like cucumbers, peppers and squash, were hardest hit because they absorb more moisture and can grow mold on their leaves. The rain has also been a boon to weeds which sprout up through silage tarps before crops can get a chance.
The weeds tower like trees as Vengston tries to keep up and remove them. “I’ve never seen the weeds be such a terrible problem,” he said.
The rain can also dilute the sugar content of fruits like melons and grapes, giving them a less sweet taste and making it more difficult to ferment grapes into wine.
“You need a certain amount of sugar in the wine when you’re fermenting to form alcohol,” said MaryAnn Houde, vineyard manager at Gouveia Vineyards in Wallingford. With plans to harvest on Sept. 22, she was keeping a close eye on Hurricane Florence as it made its way up the coast and threatened that date due to a need for the grapes to recover.
While the storm dropped less rainfall than they feared, the vineyard is still contending with clusters of grapes that have either over-ripened or are struggling to grow due to mold on the leaves. “We’re not getting the yield we thought we would,” Houde said.
They may not be able to produce as much wine as usual, but Houde is confident this year’s vintage will still be high quality. “Unless a catastrophic thing comes along, I think we’ll be okay,” she said.
Jason Bowsza, chief of staff at the state Department of Agriculture, said farmers “are a resilient people… but sometimes when things get to one extreme or another it gets to be a daunting challenge that they have to face.” He said some farms around the state reported crop losses as high as 30 percent.
“When there’s too much water you have the problem of not being able to harvest them in a way that they’re marketable before they spoil,” he said. “This year we did hear that the abundance of water caused some people undue levels of spoilage.”
Gary Lessor, meteorologist with the Weather Center at Western Connecticut State University, said the summer featured patterns of “excessive” weather, including “a lot of heat, a lot of moisture.”
“It’s good to have the warmer temperatures, but if you’re having that much moisture basically the plant drowns,” he said said.
This August was the second warmest on record, following a July that was the eight warmest during a summer that 1.9 degrees hotter than usual. The season got off to a dry start, with June and July both seeing less than normal rainfall, but August was so moist that the three months combined ended up having 2.88 inches more rainfall than usual.
While such conditions wreak havoc for crops close to the ground, peach and apple orchards have been thriving in the hot, wet conditions.
“This year we had a great crop coming up through the spring. Really moisture and sunlight (determine) what your crops (are) going to do,” said Greg Parzych, vice president of Roger’s Orchards in Southington. “The heat actually adds to the flavor.”
“It’s not a record breaker, but the fruit is looking nice,” he said, a welcome break from two years of drought-like conditions that forced the orchard to finish installing new irrigation systems for its apples and peaches.
John Lyman, executive vice president of Lyman Orchards, said the only drawback he’s seen is less people coming out to pick their own fruit because of the rain.
“The peaches kind of thrived with some of the conditions that we’ve had this year, it being hot, humid,” he said. “The size of the apples have been good… lots of sunshine (has) been good to help develop the sugars.”
For more on how this summer’s weather has affected crop harvests, listen to the “Morning Record,” the Record-Journal’s daily podcast, at https://bit.ly/2OGXME2