‘It’s like gambling every year.’ How changing weather patterns affect Centre County farmers

With farmers market season in full swing, changing weather patterns in Centre County have made harvests a mixed bag for produce farmers.

For Jason Coopey, who owns Way Fruit Farm in Halfmoon Township with his wife, the weather was great for strawberry season.

“We had probably the best strawberries we’ve had in probably five years,” he said. “The flavor was just out of this world.”

For many farmers, the period of heavy rain this summer followed by sunny weather was a welcome reprieve from the slog of rain last summer — the wettest on record in State College, up 24.09 inches from normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s accumulated precipitation graph.

“Last year it was rain. It just rained and rained and it never stopped,” Coopey said. “(This year) the mixture of rain, sun, heat has really worked out well for us.”

That translated to selling hundreds of quarts of strawberries a day in the family’s farm store, he said. Heading in to cherry season in early July and peach season in mid-July, the crop yields are looking good, he said.

Way Fruit Farm owner Jason Coopey picks sour cherries on Wednesday. After the farm’s best strawberry season in years, Coopey said he’s excited for cherry season. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Corey Sweeley, who owns Hidden Branch Farms in Millheim with his wife, said this year’s weather has been a boon for his crops as well, making it one of the best spring harvests he’s had in his nearly 13 years of farming experience.

“It rained for like a good week, and then it’s sunny for five days, and I feel like that’s perfect for growing produce,” he said.

Sweeley grows lettuce, spinach, sugar snap peas, peppers, onions and other produce. But some of the climate unpredictability — mainly last year’s rain that killed some of his crops — led him to buy his first high tunnel greenhouse, which allows him to control the growing climate for produce.

He said he’s noticed that most other farmers who grow produce have invested in high tunnel greenhouses.

“You just work with (the weather); we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “Just try your best every year, and see what happens.”

Corey Sweeley, of Hidden Branch Farms in Millheim, picks peppers in the rain -- a common occurrence this summer. Corey Sweeley Photo provided

Across the United States, the United States Department of Agriculture is predicting a crop yield decrease, specifically in corn and soybeans. As of June 11, the USDA estimated the 2019 corn yield at 13.68 billion bushels — down from 14.41 billion in 2018 and 14.61 in 2017.

In Pennsylvania, 91% of corn planted had emerged by June 23, up slightly from 87% last year on the same day, according to USDA’s Crop Progress report released on June 24.

Weather trends caused a “substantial loss” for farmer Mark MacDonald’s raspberry crop this year. The subzero temperatures in February caused his red raspberry canes to freeze, and he lost nearly 80% of the crop. About 70% of his black raspberry canes froze, because they were still stressed by the moisture from last year, which continued through the spring.

MacDonald, who has run Bee Tree Berry Farm in Walker Township for seven years, also had to remove 194 black raspberries due to an infection of orange rust, most likely passed by wind or insects from a neighboring field’s plants, he said.

bee tree
Bee Tree Berry Farm is located in Walker Township, where visitors can pick their own fruits. Dan Nelson Centre Daily Times, file

All the hardships on his raspberry crop mean he’ll have a shorter season from losing five of his seven varieties, which he spaces throughout the summer into October. That has an effect on his farm’s U-pick operation, where patrons pay to pick their own fruit by the container.

But strawberry season went very well due to the balance of rain and sun, and blueberry season — beginning in early July — looks promising, he said.

The unpredictability of the weather — which he says has persisted for over 30 years — makes it difficult to plan for farmers, he said.

“I don’t know what to plan for. Do I plan for a freeze? Do I plan for a flood? You can’t cover all your bases,” he said.

Mark Ardry, who runs Ardry Farms in Howard with his wife, two brothers and father, said the hot and dry spell lately has caused them to pump water to ensure crops are hydrated.

The month of June started off cool, which pushed back the harvest for the peppers and tomatoes, which require heat, he said. The peas, broccoli and cauliflower all came in on time, but Ardry missed the favorable strawberry weather, and his crop “melted” during the week of rains earlier in the month.

Some of the concerns he had last year, like vegetable rot and bug infestations due to heavy rains, have evaporated with the rain. But the drier summer this year could also pose problems, he said.

At 37, Ardry been farming his entire life, and he said the weather trends he’s been seeing over the last five years are alarming. It’s either a dry pattern or a wet pattern with no in-between — scorching hot or freezing cold, he said. And the most “dramatic” change? “I see that getting worse as time goes on,” he said.

“As far as anything in the future ... hope for the best,” he said. “It’s almost like playing a lottery ticket — you don’t know whether you’re gonna win or lose. It’s like gambling every year.”