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WAYNE COUNTY, PA — Martin Medved, a dairy farmer in Preston Township, PA, has a knack for remembering history through weather. Pick any year between the 1980s and today, and he’ll instantly tell you if it was a dry season, wet season, or just right. Pick any year out of the last 10 and his answer will probably be that it was wet.
Weather in northeastern Pennsylvania may be hard to predict, but in recent years it’s been a safe bet to expect plenty of rain. According to NOAH—an application that tracks rainfall patterns around the world—the average precipitation in the region has risen steadily between 2014 and 2017.
The wet weather has made last year and this one tough for local farmers. Heavy rain has delayed their work and caused some to run low on supplies. One of the more common problems farmers say they’re facing is an inability to use heavy machinery when the ground is so wet.
“You can try to get out there in the fields, but you just make damage, you make ruts, you tear up the field,” said Medved, at his farm in Orson, in the northernmost part of the county. “It’s really not worth it; it just creates more work.”
A third-generation dairy farmer, Medved raises most of his own hay and corn crops to feed 110 cows. He said the “excessive” rain has delayed his ability to plant corn by about two weeks. Over the years, Medved has built up a large supply of feed that he can rely on during tough seasons like this, but other farmers are running low.
“A friend of mine over in Susquehanna County ran out two weeks ago, so they’re scrambling… and that’s a bad feeling,” Medved said, adding that so far this summer has been a “carbon copy” of last. “We were unable to finish out the haying season [last year] just because it got so wet in September and October.”
On top of low milk prices, a tough financial environment and the decline of the dairy industry in Northeast Pennsylvania, farmers like Randy Howell and his daughter in Waymart say the rain is just another barrier for farmers to overcome.
“Everyone is struggling in some area,” Howell said. “It’s a difficult time.”
Howell’s dairy cows are grazers, so he doesn’t have to worry about stocking up on forage crops quite as much as farmers who keep their cows confined. To feed the cows during the winter, he still needs to make hay, which can lose its nutritional value if it’s not harvested in time. “It’s like you eating last week’s salad bar, it’s just not too good,” Howell said.
“I think the dairymen that depend on getting their corn in the ground are probably a little harder hit than the grazers,” he said. “If the silos are empty, [the supply] is gone.”
At the same time, the wet conditions have adverse effects on the cows that spend a lot of time grazing in the field.
“The mud is so bad that when [the cows] get into a field they do a lot of damage with their feet, and it damages their feet; the extra moisture makes their feet very sore, soft and tender,” Howell said.
He and his family are also facing issues using their machinery.
“When you have to keep going over the same ground multiple times, it’s going to really make a mess and you’re going to be more likely to get [your tractor] stuck,” said Grace Miller, Howell’s daughter, who helps her father at the farm.
Vegetable farmers too are working to come up with creative ways to mitigate rainwater on their properties.
Stan Bialecki who co-owns a vegetable farm in Lakewood said that it’s too early in the season to determine how the weather will affect his crops this year. He does much of his growing indoors, using greenhouses and hydroponics, because the weather in the area can be so unpredictable.
“We’re over 2,100 feet in elevation, so it kind of is always rainy, or cold, or windy or something,” he said. “The whole reason behind building greenhouses was so we can [work around the weather].” Bialecki noted that though it’s more consistent, it’s also much more expensive to grow indoors rather than outdoors.
“Last season especially, a lot of the local farmers in Wayne County had a real problem… for instance, instead of selling full-sized leeks in fall, they were selling baby leeks in fall because they just never got the sun they needed,” said Bialecki. He added that for vegetable farmers, the issue isn’t necessarily too much rain, but not enough sunshine.
Medved said that during these difficult seasons, it’s mostly “everyone for themselves” as opposed to a system in which farmers are looking out for struggling fellow farmers. Howell agreed.
“Because we are so few in number, we have lost the community, the infrastructure that was once there,” Howell said.
Despite two difficult consecutive seasons, most farmers said they understood the risks when they got into the business. “If you are a farmer, you are always working extra hard,” said Skye Wilbur of Running W Farms, in a Facebook comment on a River Reporter post. “This is part of being a farmer—day by day, always a struggle.”
“You take what you get, make the best of it and move forward,” Howell said.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that the application that tracks rainall patterns around the world is called NOAH, not NOAA.