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Area Farmers Cope with Heat, Little Rain

When Mother Nature is stingy with rain, area farms make their own.

This summer's extreme heat and lack of rain has caused some crops to be ready earlier than expected, but hasn't negatively affected crops as much as heavy rain would.

At Shady Brook Farm in Lower Makefield, farmer Paul Fleming said warmer weather has meant that crops have been ready for the picking sooner than usual, but otherwise have fared well. 

“Our sweet corn is doing fairly decent,” he said. “It has a really good flavor and quality this year.”

The artificial rain that farmers live by is that of irrigation, and for the most part, they contend that the lines pumping water during dry spells do the trick to keep the crops going. The farm’s large irrigation system has played a large role this year in keeping the corn crops at the over 200-acre farm in good shape. The irrigation machine can water about 10 acres in a 12-hour span, Fleming said.

Shady Brook’s corn yields are for human consumption only. The produce is sold at the farm’s store and several area outlets. Fleming said prices for locally grown corn are remaining consistent with years past.

Crop failures in the Midwest are causing the price of corn to rise and that trickles down and can affect consumers and farmers in the area.

“When field corn prices rise because of the trouble in the Midwest, the price of the ethanol used in gas goes up and we feel that,” Fleming told Patch. Corn is a major component of ethanol, a gasoline additive required by the government.

“Every year poses different challenges for us and we just try to stay ahead,” Fleming said.

Weather often is a cause of those challenges. There may be such a thing as perfect crop-growing weather, but Pat Kohler, of in Horsham, can’t recall the last time she actually experienced it.

“I’ll take not enough rain anytime,” Kohler said. “You can’t do anything to take the water away but you can always put water on.” 

Though irrigation saves the crops, it's an added cost for farmers.

Kohler said the farmer must absorb the added expense of water and labor needed to ensure crops receive enough moisture.

“It’s moving around the lines,” Kohler said of operations on the 100-acre farm. “That takes half a day for four to five people. If you just got a two-hour rainfall it would take it all away.”

The challenge for Kohler this year has been trying to keep the plants and flowers—which the family sells at its adjacent farm market—from wilting.

“It’s hard trying to keep them looking nice in the greenhouses when it’s that hot,” Kohler said.

But, the greenhouse came in handy when it came time to plant pumpkins, one of the farm’s staples. Kohler said she and her son were able to grow the pumpkins from seed in the greenhouse and replant them in the ground during the evening hours.

“You plant them out in the sun and the transplant shock is just so hard on them,” Kohler said. “They just wilt.”

Andy Andrews, ’s farm director, said recent patches of rain have “helped things sort of recover.” It has also allowed the Horsham farm to give its drip and overhead irrigation systems a rest from the previous 24-7 use, which Andrews said triples electric bills and costs at least one staffer 40 to 50 hours a week of just moving irrigation lines. 

“There’s a lot of work to do in times of drought,” Andrews said.

During the 2012 crop season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated 1,369 counties across 31 states as disaster areas—1,234 of those due to drought. Pennsylvania has not been classified as such.

That could certainly change if drier than normal conditions persist. Statewide, Pennsylvania’s top crop is corn, with 1.4 million acres planted in 2011, according to the USDA. Corn seems to be the crop most often hit hardest during extremely dry conditions.

Pennypack, which is completely pesticide-free, doesn’t grow corn. 

“It’s very land consumptive,” Andrews said. “When we do grow it, the raccoons get about half of it.” 

The fruits and vegetables grown on Pennypack’s 13 acres are distributed to more than 400 customers who buy into a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA model, Andrews said.

The crops that are harvested literally go from soil to table on the same day. During Patch’s visit, Andrews and his team of farmers harvested swiss chard, tomatoes, okra and summer squash zucchini beginning just after 7 a.m. By 2:30 p.m., CSA members were picking up those crops.

“Some items need washing or bunching,” Andrews said. “Others get thrown into a bin and weighed.”

Each week for 24 weeks, members pick up their share. Sometimes that means doing without a crop, or getting another in its place during particularly rough growing seasons.

“With the heat spell we had, a lot of our lettuce just bolted,” Pennypack Farm Manager Dennis Reil said. “We couldn’t even harvest it.”

Despite the added cost and work of pumping in artificial rain, the farmers collectively agree that the season, at least so far, has been manageable. Kohler is keeping her fingers crossed that the extremes of late are the worst of it.

“Thunder, lightning and hail and winds - everything is really extreme. You get horrible snow or no snow,” Kohler said. “I just pray that no hurricanes come along.”

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