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Constant soaking rains a pain for NJ farmers

Bruce Shipkowski, Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- For farmer Tom Sheppard, the transition from weeks of heavy rains in New Jersey to a forecast calling for sun and heat is welcomed news.

"We'd rather have the hot, dry weather. We can put water on where we need it," said Sheppard, who owns a farm in Cedarville, a community in southern New Jersey's Cumberland County.

New Jersey had its third wettest June on record last month, with many areas getting 3 to 4 inches more rainfall than normal. Officials say the soaking did not damage the state's crops across the board.

"Most of New Jersey has a sandy, loamy soil, so it drains very quickly," said Al Murray, New Jersey's assistant secretary of agriculture. "But some areas have a denser, heavier soil, so they definitely feel the effect when we get a lot of rain in a short period of time."

What farmers need now, he said, is some dry breezy days to dry out the field. Forecasts say there's a chance of rain across New Jersey in the coming days, but temperatures are expected to be in the 90s.

Sheppard said the rain wiped out nearly all of his 50 acres of squash and zucchini because damp weather makes those vegetables more prone to disease. His remaining summer-season crops, such as tomatoes and peppers will do fine with temperatures in the 90s, as they're predicted for the next several days, Sheppard said, but getting to 100 degrees would wilt them.

Most farmers plant their crops over a period of time, so everything doesn't ripen at the same time and they can keep a steady stream of products flowing. But when they can't plant for a few days due to heavy rains or other weather issues, it causes gaps in product supply that can frustrate farmers and consumers.

"It can drive you crazy, because some years you get almost no rain, then you get years like this where it seems like it's pouring every time you look out the window," said John Thompson, who grows "a little bit of everything" at his small farm in central Jersey. He says the weather has delayed some planting and harvesting, but overall he doesn't think it will cause major setbacks.

"We've dealt with droughts, we've dealt with storms, we'll deal with this," Thompson said.

When heavy, persistent rains hit, farmers often have trouble getting their equipment through the muddy fields, hampering efforts to plant and harvest crops. The abundant precipitation also creates areas of standing water in the fields, which contribute to various mold and fungus problems.

Murray said he knows some farmers who lost parts of their vegetable crops due to damage caused by the stormy weather, while others had to replant after the rains washed away seeds.

"When the soil gets too saturated, it can promote root rot and seed rot," Murray said. "You can also see nitrogen leaching out and other problems."