Farmers bemoan soggy crops

Heavy rains leave mushy leeks, swamped pumpkins, moldy cucumbers

July 03, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

Holding up a slimy leek at the Baltimore Farmers' Market yesterday, Earl Martin said the torrential rains that soaked the region are causing the vegetables he grows to "melt."

"Have you ever seen decomposed grass?" Martin, 41, asked. "That's what the fields look like."

Minus the rotting stalk, the leek he displayed is at least edible, he said. But he estimates the rains ruined 25 percent of the crops at his Perry Hall farm.

Growers selling produce yesterday told horror stories of drowned pumpkins, waterlogged watermelons, soupy muck under the drying topsoil, and fields so full of water they could only be crossed with a rowboat. The rainstorms dumped as many as 13 inches of water in some areas of the state last week, flooding sections of the Eastern Shore and other parts of Maryland.

"It's been terrible out there," Martin said.

The crops that he could save last week were hard to get to, Martin said. Usually he pulls the spring onions and shallots cleanly out of the earth and knocks off loose soil. After the storms, he yanked up balls of mud with the onions.

The vegetables that he did pry loose from the ground were so saturated that their shelf life had diminished. He normally stores shallots and sells them into January, but he worries this summer's crop will only last a few weeks before they turn soft.

Across the market that operates each Sunday morning beneath the Jones Falls Expressway, Billy Caulk, who owns a farm in Federalsburg, said the leaves on some of his crops turned black and curled up when the sun came out - as if they weren't getting enough water.

"It's the same as a drought: If the roots die, [the plants] can't get water," said Caulk, who seemed enthusiastic at the very thought of a dry spell.

"I'd rather have a drought," he said. "I can add water, but I can't take it away."

The fruit that survives might not taste that great, Caulk said. "The watermelon is not going to be as sweet. I hate to put that in print because then people won't buy it. But it's not going to be as good" as in previous years.

Caulk had to toss out one-third of the vegetables - mostly the cucumbers - he brought to sell yesterday. The moldy veggies went into an overflowing bin, he said.

"Stuff that appeared to be good when we got it had black spots [when we got here]. I'm sure we sold some that we're going to have to replace. You do the best you can," he said.

On a table where Caulk displayed flowers for sale, he laid out photographs of a Wal-Mart underwater and images of his watermelon and pumpkin fields, which had become lakes.

A neighbor, he said, found a rowboat and paddled clear across his field. Caulk thinks 20 inches of rain fell. "You can't believe the official totals," he said.

Even as the waters receded, Caulk said his fields are so full of muck it is impossible to bring in machinery. "It's hard just to walk in the field," he said.

People purchasing fruit and vegetables in the market were not overly concerned with the quality of the food.

"We just checked it really closely," said Kelly Beckham, 37, of Butchers Hill. "These people's reputations are on the stand there. They wouldn't put anything out that wasn't good."

Still, Beckham examined tomatoes for tender areas and looked for telltale black rot spots on greens before purchasing.

Stacking peaches at a nearby table, Richard Dilworth, 37, summed up the storm by saying: "We had a good drink."

He lost string beans, sweet cherries and squash. "I won't know for a week what will turn around and die and what will go on living," he said.

Dilworth, however, was one of the few farmers with a positive spin on the rains. He said the deluge actually helped his greens. He grows the lettuce and Swiss chard on higher ground so the water drained off.

And, he said, "the corn will take off."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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