Simon Athearn of Morning Glory was making hay while the sun shone yesterday, though he wasn’t yet ready to bet the farm — just a few acres in fact, out in Katama.
The unrelenting rain of June and early July has affected many crops on the Island this season, perhaps none more adversely than hay. Many farmers have been forced into a destructive waiting game — looking for the requisite three or four days of sun to cut, cure, dry and bale the hay without being hit by rain, which ruins the crop. Left standing in the field too long, though, it dries up and all the nutrients are gone.
Mr. Athearn scours weather reports at weatherunderground.com and on NECN online or on television, looking for a break in the weather. Yesterday he took a gamble, on 10 acres of land his company leases from the Farm Institute.
“It’s like, okay, I’ll bet another 10 acres on a couple days of sun,” Mr. Athearn explained.
Whether it’s for feeding livestock on site or for sale, haying is a common start to the season for many farms. Several farmers are looking at foregoing second or third cuttings on account of the poor weather.
Julie Flanders of Chilmark looks to store as much hay as possible to feed the cattle and horses through the winter. It won’t be easy this year, though.
“It’s a nightmare, to be blunt,” said Ms. Flanders, “We didn’t start haying until July Fourth weekend. On good years, we’re out in early June. The fields are hay-colored — that’s not what farmers like, we like them green.”
She predicts that the hay being baled now will not be sufficiently nutritious to satisfy her horses but might be accepted by the less finicky cattle in her fields.
Last year, she noted, the problem was excessive dryness, which didn’t give the hay a chance to grow in the first place.
“I sound like such a complainer, but really I remember maybe two or three times that the hay season was perfect,” she said.
Allen Keith, who owns eight to nine acres of farm on Middle Road, thinks he’ll be mulching his hay this year. Generally a farmer will hay Mr. Keith’s land and take the spoils for a small fee, but with his grass still standing and all but stripped of nutrients, he predicts he’ll simply cut the grass with a Bush Hog mower and leave it to enrich the soil to help next year’s crop.
“A second cutting in August is just not going to happen this year,” Mr. Keith said.
Fred Fisher 3rd and Elizabeth Fisher of Nip ’n’ Tuck farm in West Tisbury sell their hay and provide haying services for other farmers.
“We’ve been brutally affected by the weather,” said Mrs. Fisher yesterday. “Usually by now we’ve done two cuttings. Usually we have hundreds of bales done — and the hay we do have baled is wet and green.”
Mr. Athearn estimates his hay has been ripe for more than a month but Mr. Athearn has risked the baling process just a few times. The result is that no bales have been spoiled, but the farm is way behind in the cutting.
“It’s dangerously close to being worthless,” he said.
Once a dry weather system like this moves in, the first few days are crucial.
“It can get muggy and foggy out there in Katama in the late afternoon; the best time is the beginning of a sunny pattern before it gets humid.
In general the rain has set everything back a little at the farm, he added.
“Everything is just a bit behind,” he said. “The biggest negative is it kept us out of cultivation.”
The mechanical tiller is ineffective on damp soil, so the team tills 60 acres of vegetable land — stirring and pulverizing the soil — by hand.
“It hasn’t been as bad as I worried that it would be. It’s not as bad as they’re saying in Boston, but then they have a different climate.”
The thin soil of the Vineyard is not without its drawbacks, but once you have the hang of it, it holds one distinct advantage according to Mr. Athearn: the sandy earth doesn’t hold the water as firmly, giving disease-bearing fungus and bacteria less chance to grow.
“This is the soil I know,” he said.
At Fiddlehead Farm in West Tisbury, Robert Skydell has his raised beds to thank for a relatively productive season thus far. Luckily, he added, his farm was bypassed by the icy punctuation to June’s rain, a brutal hail shower that hit parts of Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs on July 1.
“We’re not seeing an overabundance of water; though it has rained often, it hasn’t rained a lot,” he said.
Fiddlehead’s largest crop is tomatoes, followed by squashes (zucchinis, patty pans) and greens (kale, chards, mustards). The farm also produces herbs to order.
“The basil is getting chewed on by slugs; they need heat and sunlight. But the tomato plants are near the top of the stalks. Hopefully we’ll start to see ripe fruit by the end of the month,” he said.
Meals in the Meadow
Farm-fresh food, served under the stars, is on the menu for the annual Farm Institute Meals in the Meadow event at Katama Farm on Saturday, July 18. With 95 per cent of the food locally produced, the full buffet dinner prepared by Buckley Gourmet Catering with everything from sushi and oysters to smoked tomato martinis and chocolate. The zero-waste event also will have pellet stove grills cooking up Farm-raised meat.
Trip Barnes will oversee the live auction; items include a meet and greet with Jon Stewart at The Daily Show, fishing and flying trips, catered meals, chicken coops, birthday parties, art lessons, and of course Red Sox tickets. Besides competitive bidding, there will be competitive giving, with the auction to fund scholarships and other needs at the teaching farm.
For a full list of auction items and attractions, or to purchase tickets, go online to farminstitute.org or call 508-627-7007.