This article first appeared on Loudoun Now, written by Danielle Nadler. Photos by Douglas Graham / Loudoun Now.
The past month’s soggy conditions are doing more than putting a damper on summer fun. The record-breaking rainfall has farmers reeling, with some even rethinking what crops they plant next year.
“If I would’ve predicted this year’s rain, we would’ve grown rice,” said Jonathan Staples, who launched Black Hops Farm near Lucketts four years ago. “I just don’t remember the last time we had this kind of almost Biblical rain for almost two weeks.”
As of Tuesday, 11.04 inches had fallen at Dulles Airport during the month of July according to the National Weather Service. That easily beats the previous record for July, made last year with 8.08 inches. But it still falls short of the all-time record of 18.19 inches in a month, reached in June 1972 when Hurricane Agnes wreaked devastation all along the East Coast.
As the rain continued to drench Loudoun this week, the small team at Bainum Family Foundation Farm near Middleburg waded through mud and standing water to harvest tomatoes before they were totally lost to fungi.
Tonya Taylor, who runs the farm with her husband Kasey Clark, said the wet weather creates perfect conditions for fungal diseases. The few organic methods they use to keep these conditions at bay—including plant-based fungicide—won’t stay on the leaves in heavy rain.
“So there’s not much we can do to slow it down. We just harvest what we can before the whole plant dies,” Taylor said.
The biggest concern for Staples’ more than 5 acres of hops is mildew. “After it stops raining, it’s hot and humid here so you end up with mildew that can just wreck the crop,” he said. “This weather is really not good right now.”
New Zealand and Washington state’s Yakima Valley are considered two of the best places to grow hops because of their dry conditions and plenty of groundwater for the roots, Staples said. But in Virginia, he just hopes that the storm clouds don’t linger.
“You can’t really plan for something like this. It’s almost like a tornado or hurricane,” he added. “You pray and you wait to see after the rain stops where you’re at.”
The wet weather hasn’t put grape growers on high alert yet, but they’re certainly hoping it lets up soon.
“We’re still not at the critical stage where we don’t want it to rain,” said Mike Caney, owner of Sunset Hills Vineyard near Purcellville. “The rain’s not bad, but we’d like it to rain less. We need half an inch a week until mid-October—half an inch, not half a foot.”
He predicts that the quantity of wine will be less than in years past, and the rain is to blame.
“That’s because of the rain we had when the grapes were flowering. … The rain in late May through mid-June had a bigger impact because it affected the fruit set,” he said. As the grapes begin to ripen, it’s ideal to have some rain but not this much. “Once we start that, we need enough to keep [the grapes] healthy but we don’t want so much to dilute them. The best for us would be to see a mild drought.”
There are a handful of sectors in the local agriculture industries that are weathering the storm better than others—for one, the sheep farmers. Allen Cochran, who farms near Lincoln, thinks the rain may be to thank for one of the best years his flock has had.
“It’s been a super year for me,” he said. “Parasites are my biggest enemy and the rain seems to keep them down.”
Of his nearly 100 sheep, only three have had worms this season. Plus, he added, his pastures have more grass than ever. “Sheep farming is all about getting enough grass. So this has really been great.”
It’s also been a good year for beets, carrots, green beans and watermelon, which the crew at Bainum Family Foundation Farm started harvesting Monday.
But, unfortunately, the weeds also thrive in the rain.
“That’s what’s so tough. When it’s nonstop rain it makes it hard to get out and pull weeds, which is really necessary,” Taylor said, adding that part of the farm’s 5 acres of produce is under 2 inches of standing water.
After a near-record hot summer in 2017 and this summer leaving rain gauges overflowing, farmers may have to rethink what usual weather looks like in Virginia. Taylor said she’s yet to experience what’s supposed to be a “typical” growing season here, and she is seriously considering planting crops—such as rice—that do better in wet conditions.
“If you want to talk about climate change, I think this erratic, unpredictable weather is the effect,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever experience a normal growing season.”
And it’s not over yet. The rain clouds are expected to stick around through the weekend.