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Farmers face unpredictable year

There’s only one thing that area farmers know for certain about the upcoming growing season — nothing is going to be predictable this year.

“It would be nice to have a crystal ball so we would know for sure what was going to happen but we don’t have that luxury,” said Steve Sugg, a Dufur cherry grower.

He and Bill Martin, a Sherman County wheat grower and rancher, say it will be another month — maybe longer for cherries — before they find out if a record number of days with snow on the ground and a long run of freezing temperatures have harmed crops.

“The life of a farmer brings a different challenge — and here’s one we never thought we’d deal with,” said Martin, who also farms mint and garlic.

He is the third generation of the family to be in the agriculture industry and farms about 5,000 acres between Rufus and Wasco.

“I haven’t, and most of the guys I’ve talked with haven’t, seen snow that stayed on the ground this length of time,” he said Thursday.

“It’s not only eight to 10 inches, it’s compacted by the ice and rain so that you can walk on it and not leave a whole lot of tracks, it’s firm.”

It was 34 degrees during the afternoon of Feb. 16 in his location, which caused Martin to speculate that if temperatures stay the same, it be will be another 10 days before the snow is gone.

His worry is what he is going to find when young plants are uncovered that haven’t had sunlight for more than 70 days, and have been inundated with moisture.

“They need light to grow and they need to dry out once in a while,” he said.

Martin said it was nice to have snow insulating plants when frigid temperatures set in. However, farmers are now concerned that wheat, and possibly other crops, will be adversely affected by “snow mold,” a fungal disease that can destroy or damage the crown of plants.

Another side effect of the harsh winter, he said, is that calf mortality is much higher.

He runs 200 pair (cow and calf) and said it has been harder for newborns to survive in these conditions. Instead of the expected 1 to 2 percent mortality rate, he said ranchers are seeing 3 to 4 percent, which will adversely affect their bottom line.

“There’s just a lot of unknowns about all of this,” Martin said. “Things should be starting to green up by now and we don’t know how long it will take this to melt off. We should know how well things survived in about a month.

“I’m going to stay optimistic because there’s not a lot else I can do.”

On the plus side, Martin said the snow is melting off slowly enough not to cause flooding, which would cause erosion of valuable topsoil.

“If it got real warm and melted everything all at once, we’d have problems,” he said.

Sugg’s wife Amy (Schanno) Sugg, is the third generation to farm.

She and Steve grow seven varieties of sweet cherries on 350 acres in Dufur and don’t expect trees to be damaged by the extended cold.

“It got below zero a couple of days but the trees had already gone dormant before the winter storms started so I think we’ll be okay,” he said.

What he does think will be affected by a long cold spell is the growing season, which is likely to be set back a month or even more.

“For the last couple of years, warmer weather has caused harvest to be early, but it’s probably going to be late this year,” said Sugg.

He said it was still too early to tell what was going on with trees, which would typically be showing more signs of life by now.

Cherry blossoms emerge before the leaves on the trees do, and the first sign of their impending arrival are green buds on the branches. Anywhere between 12 and 17 days before peak bloom, florets become visible and then extend themselves from the buds.

“I have a feeling things are going to get pushed back, so it might be the end of April before we know if the buds have been damaged,” he said. “It’s hard to say, really.”


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