Sunday, September 3, 2017

Weather Extremes Show Need for Water and Soil Conservation Practices

From EMPIRE FARM & DAIRY magazine



There’s an old saying that if you have one foot in a bucket of boiling water, and the other in a bucket of ice water, on average you feel about right.

New York farmers may be wishing that expression applied to agriculture. A year after one of the worst droughts in a generation, heavy rains threaten to dilute many farmers’ profits.

Parts of northern and western New York have seen several months in a row of above-normal rainfall, which cut into the planting season and has delayed cutting of hay. And while state agriculture officials aren’t calling the season a disaster, they say production is likely to suffer in some areas.

The contrast in moisture is a reminder, too, they say, of the value of conservation measures that preserve the soil — and which federal and state programs are meant to promote — and of the benefits of growing as wide a variety of crops as possible.

“We’re a resilient lot,” said state Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets Richard Ball, who’s far from declaring the season a flop. “It takes a whole year to make a year.”

Ball, a farmer in Schoharie, said some farmers couldn’t plant their preferred crops. Dairy farmers and others have adjusted by turning to alternatives, he said. New York farmers planted only about 75 percent of the typical acreage of potatoes, for instance, and acreage is down for grain corn, a key feed for dairy cattle, he said.

Weather statistics tell some of the story. 

Weather stations in Glens Falls, Watertown and Rochester all show wetter-than-average rainfall from spring through July. 

Watertown had 6.18 inches of rain in June alone, roughly double the normal amount, the National Weather Service reported. Glens Falls saw more than five and a half inches in July, following above-average rain in June, May and April.

“We’ve really done a one-eighty,” said Steve Ammerman, spokesman for New York Farm Bureau. “Things are a bit behind this year.”

Spring rains also kept the soil cooler, later into the season, Ammerman said, which cuts into production of some crops. But the news hasn’t been entirely discouraging; conditions have improved in several areas, and farmers who have well-drained land have fared all right, he said.

Although last year was exceedingly dry, this year’s downpours may be part of a longer trend, said Jonathan Negley, district manager for the Tompkins County Soil and Water Conservation District. 

Rain appears to fall harder and in shorter periods than in years past, he said, meaning fields that once took five or eight inches of rain in 24 hours must absorb it in half an hour instead, which often isn’t possible.

“This is just a reality that we are all going to have to face in the future, and now,” Negley said.  “Sometimes it is just unrealistic to design structures at this demanding level, so we just put in extra layers of protection or bypasses during those heavy flows.”

Officials at soil and water conservation districts — which are county-level offices that work in cooperation with state and federal agencies — continue to encourage the practices they have for years, including keeping water clean, collecting excess rainwater where possible so it can be used in dry periods, and maintaining healthy soil that’s better at holding moisture, Negley said.

That’s a more challenging mission in areas where land is being developed and paved surfaces create runoff, Negley said. Collecting the excess water becomes more important in those areas, he said.

On farms, practices such as no-till and cover crops are increasing and help the land withstand both heavy rain and drought, Ammerman said. 

Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture promote those measures and in many cases require farmers to have conservation plans. In the 2014 farm bill, Congress reinstated conservation compliance as a condition for crop insurance, and the issue is likely to come up again in the farm bill’s renewal in 2018.

Although much of the government investment in conservation comes from Washington, state agencies in New York play a role. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has promoted a $300 million environmental protection fund, and Ball said his department prepared a resource guide for farmers outlining the assistance available in the case of federal disaster declarations, which applied to much of the state during last year’s drought.

In addition, Ball said, past floods have taught officials about the importance of maintaining culverts along roads in farm country. The experience with Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 revealed the shortcomings of those drainage systems, he said.

“Every one of them is a choke point, potentially,” Ball said.

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