A false spring: Cool, wet weather dampens farmers, outdoor enthusiasts

  • Linval Notice, left, and Devon Adams weed the strawberry fields at Wellwood Orchards in Weathersfield, Vt., on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Co-owner Linda Friedman said the growth of the plants is delayed by about one-and-a-half weeks due to the spring's cold temperatures and rainy weather. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The strawberry crops are still not ripe after a delay from the spring's cold and rainy weather at Wellwood Orchards in Weathersfield, Vt., on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. The farm is hosting its fourth annual Strawberry Festival on Saturday, June 22. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After adjusting the statue in her garden, Peg Fisher, of Lebanon, N.H., looks at her raised beds on Thursday, June 13, 2019. While a light rain fell, Fisher said she has not planted the flowers and vegetables she started from seed outside yet because the temperatures have been too chilly. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, June 15, 2019

The folks at Wellwood Orchards expected to spend this Father’s Day hosting their annual strawberry festival.

Then spring dawdled on its way to Wellwood’s fields in Weathersfield near the town line with Springfield.

“Normally we open up this weekend, but the strawberries are just beginning to turn,” Lillian Dunn, manager of Wellwood’s retail store, said on Thursday.

“Everything is behind by at least a week. It was so muddy, we couldn’t get into the orchard to do much spraying (of apples). Things start late occasionally around here, but usually if it rains and then it’s followed by a lot of sun, sometimes it catches everything up.”

The National Weather Service is predicting at least a 30% chance of showers straight through Friday. So near the calendar end of the particularly cool, wet spring that followed a snowy winter, farmers, gardeners, produce shoppers, bird-watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts around the area — including spectators and fliers at this weekend’s Quechee Balloon Festival — will find themselves waiting a little longer.

While the Midwest and Great Plains are enduring far more catastrophic springs, with floods and tornadoes, “this has been one of the worst,” Jackie Folsom, a former dairy farmer who now lobbies the Legislature for the Vermont Farm Bureau, said on Friday. “Last year started pretty wet, but the summer dried everything right out. This year we had snow so late and had so much rain. … It’s just relentless.”

In addition to the water-logged corn and hay fields she’s seeing on farms around her place east of Montpelier, Folsom cited “a couple of farmers who haven’t spread any manure yet, so they can’t get their corn crop in. And people who wereable to mow some hay, it wasn’t very high and wasn’t very thick, because the sun hasn’t come out.

“Every crop is going to be an issue for Vermonters this year.”

If it keeps raining, the volume of the Connecticut River and its tributaries will be an issue for kayakers, canoeists, and for the guide and equipment companies that serve them.

And it appears the hills and the forests aren’t quite as alive with the sound of native bird song, according to professional and amateur observers.

Chris Rimmer, executive director of the Norwich-based Vermont Center for Ecostudies, said on Friday that while “the migration season was fantastic” — with plentiful sightings and hearings of warblers rushing to Quebec to feast on an outbreak of spruce budworm — “the consensus seems to be, while pretty anecdotal as opposed to empirical, that the numbers of birds singing in the forest seem to be lower.

“I’m not sure there are actual birds, but they don’t seem to be as noticeable, for whatever reasons,” he said.

Exhibit A: Vermont’s state bird, the hermit thrush.

“I’m just not hearing them or seeing them the way I normally would, just in my yard,” Rimmer said. “I’ve heard one bird sing on one day. Normally I’m hearing some every day when I go out. It’s been the same for red-eyed vireos.

“It’s not like Silent Spring or anything, but it’s caught my attention.”

In Grantham, lawyer and avid birder Sheridan Brown said, the hermit-thrush population “has been in pretty good numbers.” On the other hand, some of the early nesters such as woodpeckers, chickadees and phoebes seem to be struggling after some of the bugs they feed their youngsters hatched during a false-alarm warm spell, then died off prematurely from cold nights and steady rain.

“Before their feathers grow out, they have a hard time with thermal regulation, and sometimes a parent has to stay in the nest to keep them warm when it could be hunting for food,” said Brown, whose work history includes helping to protect loons in New Hampshire from toxic lead fishing sinkers and jigs. “We at least could fire up our woodstove when it got cold in May. It was a lot tougher on the birds than it was on us.”

Brown added that the season has also been “less than a gardener’s delight” for the plants and flowers that his family grows to attract birds, bees and butterflies.

“We have a lot of pollinator plants that are definitely slow in blooming,” Brown said. “The blooms on our azaleas and our lilacs got washed off by some of the rain, and other things haven’t come in yet.

“The big takeaway is that everything’s delayed, which has had a ripple effect on other things.”

Rimmer, who recently returned from catching and banding birds on 4,393-foot-high Mount Mansfield, also pointed to the interconnectedness of plants and bugs and birds, and the potential for disruption of their nesting, feeding and breeding patterns.

“We caught maybe 35% of what we’d usually see,” Rimmer said. “We can’t really answer whether it’s a result of climate change — you have to be careful about generalizing too much. I don’t think anyone would argue that there’s been a drastic re-shuffling of the deck, but there are indications of change, particularly at high elevations, where species traditionally found at lower elevations are starting to migrate.

“There’s a lot of evidence around the world for this happening, and not just the birds. That’s why we monitor birds and butterflies and bees and such, look for empirical evidence.”

Brown and Rimmer arehoping for the sun to emerge long enough for milkweed to flourish in time for the migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico in early summer. While 2018 brought more of the orange-and-black beauties in the Upper Valley, after several years of virtually no sightings, “I’ve heard of one so far,” Rimmer said. “I’ve noticed way fewer butterflies in general so far this spring. They’re so dependent on warmth.

“It’s all interconnected.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.