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How our scorching hot and dry summer will affect N.J.’s biggest crops logo 8/18/2022 Richard Cowen,
Intense heat and a lack of rain has made it harder for NJ farmers to grow corn this year. © BIll Gallo Jr. | For Intense heat and a lack of rain has made it harder for NJ farmers to grow corn this year.

A summer of intense heat and spotty rain has made things difficult for some New Jersey farmers, with corn withering in non-irrigated fields and soybeans shedding flowers under the blazing sun.

The damage was done as a hot and dry July melted into August with high humidity and back-to-back heat waves. Cooler, but drier air arrived last week and temperatures have moderated, but if like a farmer you’ve been waiting for relief from a steady soaking rain, you’re going to keep waiting.

Much of the state is parched dry, and will remain that way for the foreseeable future, with Gov. Phil Murphy asking New Jersey residents to conserve water.

“If we don’t get rain in the next week there will be a fairly significant hit on field corn,” said Melissa A. Bravo, an agronomist with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension who covers Salem County. “Across the region, we need a good, soaking rain.”

No one is calling this growing season a bust, not with nearly 10,000 farms working statewide and nearly 100 different crops in the ground. But the yields of some of the state’s high-value cash crops, like corn, soybeans, and peaches, are projected down from last year, and prices that are already high are likely to stay that way.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week projected that soybean production in New Jersey would drop from 46 bushels an acre in 2021 to 36 bushels this year when all the picking is done. Peach production was expected to drop from 13,700 tons in 2021 to 7,500 tons this year—although farmers say the big drop-off was more the result of a spring frost that knocked many of the buds off the tree than the dry summer.

“Heat is bad for everything,” said Santo Maccherone, who runs Circle M Farms in Salem County. “But not as bad for peaches.”

Maccherone says he’s been lucky — he’s gotten enough rain on his farm in Mannington Township and hasn’t had to irrigate. But heat, he said, tends to reduce the size of the fruit.

And although there may be fewer peaches this year, he said the situation is better than last year, when there were too many.

“Last year was a disaster,” he said.

The farmers who are taking the biggest hit are those that work fields that aren’t irrigated. Dry land farmers who raise feed corn, grains, and forage crops like hay feed corn, depend on rain, and cloudbursts this summer have been few and far between.

Kurt Alstede, the owner of the Alstede farm in Chester, Morris County, said just about every one of his 800 acres is irrigated. It’s more work to pump water, and working under a blazing sun can be draining, he said. But sunshine can be the farmer’s best friend, as long as you can add moisture.

“Cold and wet, hail, heavy wind, that’s a lot worse,” Alstede said. He said tropical storms, like the remnants of Hurricane Ida that blew into New Jersey over Labor Day weekend last year, will do much more damage to crops than a dry spell.

“I think the heat is worse for our customers than it is for us,” he said. “During a heat wave, people tend to say inside in their air conditioning. They don’t want to come out and shop.”

Most of the state’s tomato growers use irrigation so the outlook is good for the Jersey tomato and other garden vegetables, like cucumbers and bell peppers. Most of the state’s sweet corn is grown in irrigated fields, so there should be enough of that summer favorite to go around, experts say.

Whereas too much rain dilutes the sugars, mild drought conditions tend to make the fruit sweeter. “The peaches taste better because of the drought,” Alstede said.

The outlook is also optimistic for upcoming cranberry harvest. The USDA estimates that New Jersey, which is the nation’s fourth-largest producer, will harvest 590,000 barrels of cranberries, up from the banner year total of 589,000 last year.

Nobody’s predicting any shortages, but food prices that were high going into the spring planting season are likely to stay that way. That’s because farmers so-called “input” costs—the price of seed, fuel, fertilizer, labor, and packaging—have all risen dramatically, swept up in the inflationary spiral of the last few years.

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