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Daily downpours causing angst among Tampa Bay farmers

Jason New just isn't seeing the same amount of Trinidad scorpion peppers as usual.

Johnny Melton's Bahia grass is having trouble pollinating. And more of Randy Thompson's muscadine grapes are falling off the vine.

Florida farmers are accustomed to weather extremes in a state known for hurricanes and tropical storms, but the steady, almost-daily soaking around the Tampa Bay area this summer has many more worried than usual.

At times unrelenting, the rains have knocked grapes and peppers to the ground and hindered pollination to produce grass seed. Hay farmers, who need three days of dry weather to air out their crop before baling, say they can't catch a break.

"I have just as many peppers on the ground as on the plants," said New, who has about an acre of the reddish Trinidad scorpion peppers, among the world's hottest varieties, in the ground at his farm in Dade City.

New grows the peppers for sauce makers and grounds them into powder at his farm that also houses chickens, horses and a row of okra.

Rains are knocking many peppers off the plants and sometimes causing the ones still clinging to split open like tomatoes after a thorough drenching. Once that happens, New said, the peppers can't be sold.

"It just makes them mushy," he said.

June and July are typically between-season times when most area farmers wrap up harvesting and prepare for next season's crop, but many also count on the region's hot summer months for growing okra, peppers, avocado, grapes and hay, among a handful of other crops.

The two months didn't end up in the record books for rain but proved amply wet nonetheless, with June posting close to 50 percent more rain than usual and July about a third wetter, according to the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

All that water poses some benefits. It helps oranges plump up and drives irrigation costs lower. But the downpours are triggering unwanted impacts, too, such as fertilizer run-off and fungus on leaves and vegetables that requires spraying.

Farmers and county extension services say the costs are outweighing the benefits.

"For perennial crops like blueberries it can cause leaf spots called rust. Given enough time, the entire leaf will turn yellow," which can affect next season's production, said Stacey Strickland, director of Hernando County's Extension Service, a farm and garden resource funded by the county and the University of Florida.

Strickland said the rain can also trigger root rot as well as a more damaging fungus, evident by a white powder, but he hasn't yet heard reports of either of those occurring. Still, there are other problems. Low-lying fields are being ruined by standing water and hay producers are having a tough time drying their crop before baling.

The farmers need a two- to three-day window after the hay is cut. If after 10 days the rain hasn't abated, the hay can become useless for sale. Farmers can weather a thunderstorm or two, but that forces them to return to the fields to "fluff up" the hay to start the drying process all over, Strickland said.

"All of this leads to higher production costs and time away from other fields," he said.

Johnny Melton might not be known outside agricultural circles, but his Bahia grass seed is widely available at bay area garden-supply stores.

Melton, a seed wholesaler with about 5,000 acres of Pensacola Bahia grass near Dade City, said he has one shot to harvest, from the end of June to the end of September after pollination.

So far, his production level is falling off its usual pace.

He hasn't seen any root rot but says the downpours are sparking pollination issues. The tiny flowers usually release their pollen in the morning. In many instances, rains have washed away the pollen before fertilization can occur.

"Our seed production is down 40 percent," he said.

Farther south in Hillsborough, Randy Thompson is grappling with a different problem. Successive storms are knocking grapes off the vine at his farm, Thompson's Nursery and Vineyard in Valrico. Those that have remained on the vine have been slower to ripen.

The grapes' taste hasn't suffered, he insists, but production yields are down 10 percent. His three acres of muscadine vines are ready to harvest.

"All this rain is just really not helping," said Thompson, 73, a farmer for most of his life. "They like enough rain to make the grapes. Anything more and they can get over powered. These vines are very old and have deep roots."

This week, Thompson and his crew were readying for u-pick season, which was set to open Friday. He also sells peach trees and dragon fruit.

Mulling the question of rain, he hit on another problem — more of a nuisance. The storms have made the grass that grows between the rows of vines reach knee-high, or taller.

"The grass is so thick we can't get the mower through there. They have to rake it first," he said.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Daily downpours causing angst among Tampa Bay farmers 08/03/13 [Last modified: Saturday, August 3, 2013 10:21pm]
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