Southeastern Pa. and South Jersey praise rain during dry time

Estevan Penaloza at work at Highland Orchards, where apple trees are being planted.
Estevan Penaloza at work at Highland Orchards, where apple trees are being planted. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 20, 2013

It was sprinkling lightly Thursday morning, but that wasn't keeping Stuart Constable and his four-man crew from planting new apple trees at Highland Orchards, south of Downingtown.

"From the end of March to the Fourth of July, something is being planted," said the production manager for the 200-acre spread, south of Route 30 in West Bradford Township, Chester County.

Because fields in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey have been thirsty all year, the light Thursday rain was a welcome visitor - an all-too-seldom visitor.

Andrew Frankenfield, an agricultural agent for the Penn State Cooperative Extension, said in an interview, "If we didn't have last week's heat and rainfall, we would be significantly behind in the growing season."

Statistics back him up.

The Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center in State College, Pa., has reported less-than-normal precipitation in all of Southeastern Pennsylvania this year.

From Jan. 17 to Tuesday, Chester County precipitation totaled 7.6 inches, only 73 percent of the normal 10.5 inches, the center's website shows.

Since Jan. 16, precipitation was 72 percent of normal in Delaware County, 80 percent in Bucks County, and 81 percent in Montgomery County.

But within those numbers, Chester County precipitation from March 18 to Tuesday was especially weak - only 59 percent of normal.

And so, across the region, Frankenfield said, "pastures have been slow to green up and produce enough feed for livestock."

That means that dairy farmers - among the state's top producers of agricultural income - are relying on harvested or bought hay, he said, "for the next week or two."

In South Jersey, vegetable growers - the state's largest agricultural presence - have been dry and cool.

And cool is not, like, cool, man.

"More of the delay in planting was because of the cold temperatures," said Ed Wengryn, a research associate at the New Jersey Farm Bureau, a trade association.

"We are a week or so behind because of the cooler spring temps. Rain usually helps, but it's been a dry April."

Lack of rain isn't as much of a concern to Jersey's vegetable growers, Wengryn said, because "our guys can control the water through irrigation systems. But they can't control air temperatures and sunshine."

New Jersey state climatologist David A. Robinson was downright chilly on his website, noting that for March "the statewide average of 38.3 degrees was 2.8 degrees below the 1981-2010 average and ranked as the 37th coolest since 1895."

At Highland, Constable took the long view.

"We haven't had a normal year for quite a while," he said. "This year we're late" with planting fruit trees.

Without contradicting himself, he noted that "we've had some ideal spring conditions here the last couple of years."

For instance, "last spring, we were three weeks to a month early. At this time, we were done" with 2012 apple planting.

And off he went, slowly driving a tractor that cut a row into which one of his workers dropped a four-foot-tall sapling every five feet, while three others followed, filling in furrows.

Highland has 12,000 apple trees in production this year, with 1,000 more spindly ones spending two years maturing.

For one day's work on Thursday, Constable said, "we'll have 325 planted," and "when we're all done, we'll have about 1,600 more trees" in all fields than last year.

Yet, he noted, "at one time we probably had over 100 acres of apples and since then we're down to about 50."

The family driving up the road has become more attractive.

With apples, peaches, strawberries, and sweet corn as its top attractions, he said, "we decided to get out of the wholesale market" and concentrate on the longtime audience - the pick-your-own harvesters and the visitors to the roadside market.


Contact Walter F. Naedele at 610-313-8134, wnaedele@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @WNaedele.

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