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Primed for Production: Jefferson County farmers expect outstanding harvest

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Farmers say the wealth of rain and sunshine this summer has corn, hay and soybean fields across Jefferson County primed for an outstanding harvest.

Some cornstalks, for example, stand 12 feet tall at Fairlawn Farms on Route 289 in Ellisburg. Similar lush farmland is a common sight across the southern half of the county, said Albert M. Gehrke, who co-owns the farm with his son, Eric C. The cash-crop farmer expects to harvest higher-than-average yields from 650 acres of grain corn planted in May and 250 acres of soybeans planted in early June.

“If you drive down through here, the farmland is as good as you’re going to find anywhere,” said the 69-year-old, who plans to harvest crops in early October. “We have some seriously good-looking corn. If we don’t get any monsoonal moisture, the harvest is going to be as good as it ever has — maybe better.”

By planting corn in early May, Mr. Gehrke avoided the long stretch of June rainfall that delayed planting and the first hay cutting at many farms. The farm’s light-textured loamy soil, which has drainage tiles, helped prevent flooding on farmland. Flooding in June was more pervasive on farmland in northern Jefferson County, which tends to have heavier clay soil.

Cornfields at the Ellisburg farm, about 5 miles east of Lake Ontario, normally yield an average of 175 to 180 grain bushels per acre, Mr. Gehrke said. This season’s crop, though, likely will top that mark.

“We’ve done some testing and know some areas are going to exceed 200 bushels per acre,” he said.

Cornfields planted in May are expected to produce higher-than-average yields, said Michael E. Hunter, field crops expert for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. Helping that cause were above-average temperatures in April, May, June and July recorded by the National Weather Service at Watertown International Airport near Dexter. Rainfall measured at the airport from May 1 through Sept. 5 was 13.09 inches, up from the 12.24-inch average for the same period, according to data collected since 1949.

Above-average yields for corn silage and hay this season should help some dairy farms rebuild their stocks after a poor hay harvest last summer, Mr. Hunter said, when a monthlong drought significantly reduced yields.

“Farms may hit over 25 tons of corn silage per acre, and I know some fields that will exceed 30,” he said. “Hay yields are going to be above average at most farms, and some of them even had a surplus to sell.”

Sackets Harbor dairy farmer Ronald C. Robbins said cornfields in Jefferson County are “probably better than anywhere in the state.” The maturity of cornfields planted in May at Old McDonald’s Farm off County Road 145 is about two weeks behind schedule, he said, because of June rainfall that slowed growth. But unless an early frost arrives this month to kill plants, the harvest is expected to be excellent. The 950-cow farm planted about 2,600 acres of corn, 2,200 acres of hay and 900 acres of soybeans this season.

“We could potentially have some of the best yields we’ve ever had,” Mr. Robbins said. “We had rain when corn was pollinating, and then we’ve had this August rain to fill the corn ears out. Other than June, it’s hard to believe things could be better than this. Our soybeans are loving the August rain and sunshine, which is critical.”

From June 1 through July 11, 7.48 inches of rain were tallied at the Watertown airport. That’s the second-wettest six-week stretch — behind the summer of 1999 — ever recorded over that period. Lingering June rainfall waterlogged many farms in the county’s northern region because heavy clay soil couldn’t absorb moisture fast enough, said Philadelphia dairyman Michael B. Kiechle, who has 115 acres of corn and 175 acres of hay. Though he managed to plant corn in early May, other farms weren’t as fortunate.

“It depended on your natural resources, your labor and what equipment you have,” he said. “For some farmers in the area, this has been a frustrating year. For others that have the labor and soil to get the job done, it’s been a challenging but good year. The rain made it challenging to get crops dry enough to harvest and to plant corn. You can’t do everything all in one day.”

Because of the unpredictable weather, Mr. Kiechle said, the quality of cornfields in the surrounding area has varied widely this season. Farmers who planted corn in early May have been successful, he said. But those who waited until the rain cleared in late June paid the price.

“It’s all over the board here,” he said. “On the same road, I can show you corn that looks pathetic and absolutely super. There’s more variability in the corn this year than I’ve ever seen. Corn that was planted the first half of May looks good, but if it was planted past Memorial Day or at the end of June, it doesn’t look good. If you put the seed in and then got heavy rains, the seeds didn’t germinate as well.”

Farmers now are waiting for cornfields to dry enough for harvesting, Mr. Hunter said, which usually starts the last week of September. The first frost usually doesn’t occur until October, he said, but Mother Nature could play a spoiler role if freezing temperatures arrive this month before farmers have a chance to harvest fields.

Over the past decade, the earliest frost in which the temperature fell below 32 degrees at the Watertown airport was Sept. 19, 2008. The latest frost was Oct. 20, 2005.

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