Local industries adjust to wetter weather
The south-central Pennsylvania fashion trend for 2019 is galoshes and a raincoat. Are you ready?
According to Dr. Tim Hawkins, professor of geography/earth science and campus weather guru, the 2018 calendar year was second wettest on record, registering 22 inches more precipitation than the average. In 2018, the Shippensburg area measured 62.53 inches—including rain, snow, and ice—while the average is about 40 inches. The area was not far from the 1996 record of 63.98 inches.
Climate models indicate this is the new trend, Hawkins said. “Any given month was not particularly unusual, but it’s certainly been a wet year. This is exactly what the climate center predicts for this area. We’re getting both warmer and wetter.”
“It’s been gray and wet for a long time,” he said, and it’s making an impact on several regional industries. In December, Gov. Tom Wolf declared disaster relief funding for farms in fourteen counties, including Cumberland, as a way to get assistance for losses caused by excessive rain and flash flooding.
“We never expected anything like this,” said Tricia Borneman ’97, organic farmer and owner of Blooming Glen Farm in Perkasie. Borneman has farmed for about twenty years, fourteen of them at Blooming Glen.
“Many people who get into farming have a different idea of what it looks like, especially last year. It was the wettest year we experienced in Pennsylvania.”
As one of thousands of cooperative weather stations around the country, Hawkins relays official weather and climate data from Shippensburg to news stations daily and the National Climate Data Center monthly. From a meteorological standpoint, precipitation is measured by water year, which runs October 1 through September 30. This past year, the story that unfolded was the saturated 2018 calendar year.
What’s trending, Hawkins said, is more rain in a shorter amount of time. Precipitation in the first half of 2018 was on track. The wet weather started making headlines over the summer, when the area’s typically brief summer storms became multi-day soakers. “The low pressure was really pushing down on us. We got heavy rain, and because it was summer, there was a lot of moisture in the atmosphere,” he said. “From a weather geek standpoint, that was unusual.”
The unusual weather pattern hit from July through September, then again in November and December, Hawkins said. Much of this is attributed to the late summer hurricanes that hung around the coast. He said, collectively, many Northeast cities like Baltimore and Washington, DC, started hitting big numbers and, eventually, breaking annual precipitation records.
“These storms now carry more water,” he said. “The potential exists that you get these bigger storms. We saw an increase in rainfall, but much of it is coming in a shorter amount of time.”
This past summer, Hawkins and his family traveled to Cape Town, Africa, to celebrate his mother-in-law’s seventieth birthday—the first major city to face a true water crisis. In January 2018, Cape Town made headlines for being ninety days from Day Zero, a very real calculation of when the city runs out of water in its reservoirs. Households in this first-world city were permitted to consume only twenty-three gallons of water per day. The United States Geological Survey estimates each person (not household) in the United States uses between eighty and 100 gallons of water a day.
Fortunately, when Hawkins and his family visited, Cape Town had received some reprieve and Day Zero was adjusted. “They had a potentially catastrophic drought. It’s not good for tourism,” he said. “I didn’t feel like it impacted our experience, though. They were asking, but not mandating, change.”
This is the proverbial frog in the boiling water, Hawkins said. “We’re talking about climate models—this is exactly what will happen. The dry places will get drier, and the wet places will get wetter.”
Borneman graduated with a degree in communication/journalism, but organic farming dovetailed perfectly with her family’s values and beliefs. “We wanted to work outside, work together, and do what we believe in.”
Established in 2000, Blooming Glen has about thirty acres of land in cultivation and rents another forty acres. They sell produce at the farm and farmers markets, and operate successful Community-supported Agriculture (CSA). Born and raised in Bucks County, Borneman recognized the rapid loss of valuable farmland and chose to channel her passion into her community. Farming is always challenging, but she said this past year really threw them for a loop.
“The problem this year was the continued rain. It never dried out. It was steady downpour after steady downpour. It was challenging—after September we couldn’t get the tractor out or cultivate.”
Shatzer Fruit Market has supplied apples and other produce to the region for eighty-six years. Dwight Mickey ’81 and his family experienced the gamut of weather trends, but even nine decades in, Mickey said his father never remembered a year as wet as 2018.
“In my experience, if we got a heavy crop of fruit, it was a dry year. A light crop of fruit meant a wet year,” he said. “This past year, that went out the window.”
Mickey said they deal with the rain on a week-by-week basis, making adjustments as they go. Unfortunately, fruit trees don’t do well with oversaturation. “If the soil is too wet, trees get wet feet and eventually die.”
Many of the newly engineered varieties, such as gala and honeycrisp apples, are not resistant to rain, he said. Shatzer’s produces many older, stable varieties, such as red and golden delicious. At the Pennsylvania Farm Show in January, the orchard won fifty-seven ribbons for their produce.
Forty years ago, Mickey earned a business degree from Ship to better manage the orchard and increase cash flow. He’s done more with subsurface draining, created new storage methods, and developed a better business model.
“Anymore, it’s about 90 percent management.”
Local landscaper Austin Myers ’04 also experienced a shift in work in 2018 because of the wet weather. In his business, a normal week is five to six days, nine hours a day. They adjusted to fewer days and longer hours to keep up. “That takes a toll.”
The rain affected their ability to complete ground work. The weather was great for planting, but it was hard to carve out enough time between storms to do it, he said. “The climate around here is definitely changing,” he said. “We’re planning out for another wet year.”
It’s no secret that the weather is rather unpredictable. Hawkins said according to the climate center, relying on a forecast more than two or three days out is unreliable. For Mickey, that means “every year, it’s a blank sheet.”
As a fourth-generation grower at Shatzer, he has plenty of history and data to drive his decisions, but they take the weather day to day. Last year, the heavy rains nearly wiped out their peach season. He said the orchard would get two inches of rain at once that turned their peaches to mush. Cherries suffered as well. “It’s been a balancing act,” he said.
They’ve relied on what they know best, and what they know will do well in the wet weather—apples. By focusing on those varieties of apples that can handle the rain, Mickey said they’ve been able to grow through October. And, his new storage technique has enabled the orchard to offer apples year-round. “So far, it’s going great.”
He also keeps up with trends. A new variety called evercrisp is anticipated to have the sweetness of newer apples like honeycrisp, but more rain resistance like the old varietals. These new apples won’t be available for about three years, but he has to plan now.
“I have to know what consumers want before they know they want it.”
At Blooming Glen, Borneman said they suffered unprecedented losses last year—the potatoes yielded only a quarter of the regular harvest, the carrots rotted away, and they couldn’t harvest any broccoli. “I never expected anything like it. It’s true, the weather is one thing we can’t control.”
Fortunately, she said the farm can depend on their CSAs. This model allows the community to subscribe to the harvest and buy local food directly from the farmer. “We really value the relationship with our CSAs,” she said. “We communicate with them and let them know what’s happening.”
The commitments and money made through the CSAs are helping Blooming Glen literally weather these storms. “It helps our farm through these weather patterns.” Borneman said they also are working on becoming a year-round farm with their greenhouses, offering produce for every season.
Myers has been in landscaping for fifteen years and said he’s noticed the increased rain over the last five years. “The seasons are changing.”
He’s shifted his work as much as possible, sometimes looking for more work to do in the shop or focusing on the tasks that are doable in wet weather. Mulching, edging, and spraying weeds were challenging. “You couldn’t mow, but you could plant a tree,” he said.
One thing that helps is quality customer service. Myers season ramps up in March, and he covers a wide area—from as far north as Camp Hill down to the Maryland border. Last year, he sent his customers a letter asking them to be patient. “We wanted them to know, we have you on the schedule for this day, but plan on a three-day window,” he said. “You have to have an open mind, be able to rearrange your work schedule, and work well with people.”
Mother Nature certainly made an impact in 2018, but there’s one thing she can’t affect— “Farmers are eternally optimistic,” Mickey said. “Every year, it’s pretty much a clean slate, and you start over.”
Borneman stresses the importance of supporting local growers. “Seek them out, ask them what you can do, and buy from them,” she said. “We still have produce… Support fresh, local, organic.”
Mickey said he knows the orchard is becoming a destination spot because it’s more convenient for consumers to make one stop for everything at a big store. But at local farms and orchards, “you can talk to someone who gets their hands dirty, and see the produce you want to buy.”
Myers said relationships are key. Even if the weather isn’t cooperating, he communicates with customers and gets the job done. “A huge part of this is customer service.”
And no matter what the weather, they are working hard for you. “We remind our customers, we are here, rain or shine—come out with your umbrellas,” Borneman said.