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Farmers, machinery still on sidelines after second wettest stretch of summer rainfall

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Puddles of water have sat on many Jefferson County farms for weeks, forcing farmers to wait on the sidelines because the mud is too thick for them to operate harvest machinery.

A total of 7.48 inches of rain were tallied over the past six weeks, which included 24 rainy days. That’s the second wettest period — behind the summer of 1999 — recorded from June 1 through July 11 at Watertown International Airport near Dexter, according to National Weather Service data going back to 1949. In 2012, only 3.44 inches fell over the 41-day stretch.

In the town of Pamelia, last week’s heavy rainfall proved too much to handle for corn and hayfields off Route 37 owned by dairy farmer Han VanDerVeeken, who also owns a farm in Castorland, Lewis County. Drainage tiles installed on the farm in 2011 proved to be no match for the frequent days of rain at the farm, where he owns about 350 acres of corn and leases 250 acres of hay.

On Friday, a pattern of puddles on the cornfield looked similar to lines on a football field.

“When you get 1.3 inches of rain, and then another 1.3 in five days, gravity can’t keep up for the rain to run through the soil,” Mr. VanDerVeeken said. “Water runs down to the low spots, and the heavy-textured clay soil here takes longer for rain to drain. This kind of rainfall happens once in 25 years, and without the tiles out there it would be a lake.”

Rainfall has varied widely in different parts of the north country. For example, Mr. VanDerVeeken’s farmland in Castorland is relatively dry because of its lighter-textured soil. Though plenty of sunny weather has produced a vast quantity of hay in the fields, rain over the past six weeks has prevented farmers like Mr. VanDerVeeken from harvesting it. Mid-July is usually prime time for farmers to make their second cutting of hay, because it has the most protein and nutritional value, which milking cows need in their diet.

This week, however, could be a fortuitous time for farmers who have waited for a three-day window of rainless weather to harvest dry hay. The National Weather Service has predicted a stretch of dry weather from today through Wednesday, which could provide enough time for farmers to get the job done.

But Michael E. Hunter, field crops educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, is only cautiously optimistic about the forecast. Wet soil still could make it difficult to operate machinery in fields without creating ruts, he said. And even a small amount of rain could be enough to make new puddles.

“Last summer, because of the dry spell, farms could have handled a lot of rain because soil was so dry,” he said. “But now it’s like there’s a glass that’s almost full. It can overflow with a quarter-inch of rain.”

Standing water also has affected corn and soybean fields by cutting off the oxygen supply to plants and depleting nitrogen levels in the soil, Mr. Hunter said. As a consequence, many farmers have been compelled to fertilize their fields for a second time with nitrogen, an expensive task that costs about $30 to $35 per acre.

“A 500-acre farm would have to spend about $17,500 on fertilizer,” he said.

Even so, north country farmers lucked out compared with those in Oneida County. Some farms there have received more than 20 inches of rain during the past six weeks, Mr. Hunter said. In some areas, airplanes have been used to spray fertilizer and pesticide on fields because they’re too wet to operate ground equipment on.

“Our fields are very manageable compared to theirs,” he said. “Your boots sink two inches in the ground on that soil.”

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