Faren Leader always had a green thumb, and the Scio-area resident has been gardening for as long as she can remember.
This year, she decided to quit her office job and become a full-time (tiny) farmer. Faren’s Farm sits on a fifth of an acre on her family’s spread.
The career change sounds idyllic, but it came during one of the most challenging years for local small farms that anyone can remember.
Heavy spring rains lasted well into June and were followed by prolonged heat waves and then earlier than normal downpours in September. Those factors combined for a short growing season.
“We have weather happening when it wouldn’t normally happen, and it’s happening on a more intense scale,” said Leader, who worried about the impacts of climate change.
She’s re-evaluating what she’ll grow next year and considering purchasing more equipment to protect her crops from extreme weather.
Bruce Pokarney, Oregon Department of Agriculture spokesman, acknowledged that it’s been one of the weirdest weather years throughout the state that he’s seen with the agency.
“Normally, you’ve got too dry of a year, or too wet, but in this case, we had both,” he added.
The rains were more of a concern than the heat in Linn and Benton counties, said Amy Garrett, Oregon State University assistant professor in the small farms program.
“We already have a pretty short growing season,” she said.
The Lebanon Downtown Farmers Market was bustling with activity and had booths loaded with produce on Thursday, but things looked bleak early on, said Michelle Morford, market manager. One major farm booth only had plant starts and hanging baskets the first week of the season.
“Everything was so late. It must have been the fourth or fifth week before it looked like a regular farmers market,” she added.
The early rains drowned plants, said Leader, who has a booth at the market. “We had to wait for forever to plant crops,” she added.
Chris Bayne, of the Bayne Farm near Lebanon, said that the early season rains, in particular, were difficult.
“We planted 40 tomato plants and had to pull them up a week later because of all the water. It was just terrible. Everything was under water for so long,” he added.
“We had to replant cucumbers three times and they still never made it,” Bayne said, in between helping customers at the Lebanon Downtown Farmers’ Market.
Fruit trees were blooming in the pouring rain, impacting pollinators, said Janet Boucot of Sunflower Hill Farm near Lebanon. “We don’t have anything at all on the apple trees,” she added.
The hot weather that followed led to challenges with irrigation, losses for cool weather crops such as spinach and huge problems with insects, farmers said. Chickens also were too hot to lay eggs, Boucot said.
While many Oregonians were cheering for downpours that doused forest fires last week, those storms complicated matters for farmers.
“I have a lot of split tomatoes right now,” Leader said.
Boucot said she picked a lot of under-ripe tomatoes on Thursday to salvage them. “We panicked,” she said.
Farmers with melons, squash or crops that still need time to ripen may face losses due to soggy conditions, Garrett said.
Leslynn Rasmussen, owner and grower for Rasmussen Family Farm near Shedd, said she was crossing her fingers hoping for sunny conditions for later crops like cauliflower, broccoli and kale.
Even larger farms were impacted by the unusual weather. “We’re not going to be making any record yields anywhere,” said Katie Chambers, industrial sales manager for Stahlbush Island Farms near Corvallis.
“Even through all the extremes, we’ve still been able to harvest and our sales have been strong. The organic market is still strong. It’s all going to be OK. More challenging, but we’re going to make it,” Chambers added.
While small farms were challenged by the early rains, other industries, such as vineyards and hazelnut orchards, benefitted for the soil moisture early in the season, said OSU experts.
The consistently cool winter weather, however, may have impacted the hazelnut crop this year, said Nik Wiman, orchard specialist for the OSU Extension Service. Spider mites also were a factor in the heat.
Across the state, wildfires posed issues for farmers harvesting crops, and smoke taint was a concern for winemakers and owners of fruit tree orchards, Pokarney said. Sunburned fruit was also a concern even before the fires, he added.
The local wine industry, unlike that in the Columbia River Gorge or elsewhere, seems unlikely to be impacted negatively by smoke taint, said Patty Skinkis, OSU assistant professor and viticulture extension specialist.
“Most of it was blown into the Willamette Valley. It wasn’t right next door,” she added.
Local small farmers said they’re used to the unpredictability of their chosen field, so to speak. Bayne Farm has been in business for three years, and Bayne said he knows some seasons are great and some aren’t as productive.
“We’re just trying to hang in this year,” he said.