When Rain Falls on Cherry Season

By Sara Lipka
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Photo by Roberat/Flickr CC


In a drought, you can irrigate. But in a deluge, what are you going to do, hold an umbrella over your farm?

Like much of the East Coast, Rappahannock County, Virginia, sloshed through the spring. By June we'd pretty much stopped checking the forecast. Six and a half inches of rain fell during the month, about 25 percent more than in each of the last two Junes. According to our closest weather station, last month was a washout; from June 3 till the summer solstice, it rained every day but two. Good thing the cover of our Mid-Atlantic Orchard Monitoring Guide is laminated.

Farmers need rainy days. But how about some sun in between? When the alternative to rain is drizzle, trees and plants never dry. And that is very good for one thing: fungus. Beyond moisture, spores like mild temperatures--our average last month was 72--and ripening fruit. June was essentially a fungal checklist.

Everybody loves a bowl of cherries, but not with rotting lesions.

Our poor sweet cherries, seven acres of Bings and Lapins, fell prey. Their two-week harvest period coincided with the cool rains--and rampant sporulation of a fungus called Monilinia fructicola. That nemesis of stone fruits around here attacks branches, blossoms, and fruit, causing the dreaded brown rot. Everybody loves a bowl of cherries, but not with rotting lesions.

What made matters worse is that sweet cherries tend to split as they swell. For one thing, splits help spread fungal infections, but also, even the healthy cherries were absorbing so much water through their skin that they were bursting, too. We did manage to harvest and sell dozens of healthy flats, cardboard trays of pints and quarts, at the beginning of June, but then we had to cut our losses. Conventional fungicides may have helped some, but as a certified organic farm, we had sprayed only copper and sulfur. Our farm director told disappointed market customers that cherries are among the hardest crops to grow organically.

But brown rot didn't totally win. Our cooler still contains a few partially healthy flats, which my tireless fellow intern Casey is culling and either drying or freezing. And our soon-to-be-harvested peaches seem to have escaped the epidemic.

Still, the evil fructicola was hardly the only fungus sporulating last month. Botrytis squamosa lurked in the onion beds, spreading a disease known as onion blast. Conditions again favored the fungus: cool, wet weather and ripe hosts. With onion blast, leaves develop white spots, then start to shrivel, making photosynthesis kind of tricky. Our onion bulbs themselves weren't damaged, just smaller.

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Photo by Sara Lipka

And the tomatoes? Slower. Yet another moisture-loving fungus gave our first generation early blight, wiping out the plants' lower leaves. Look down our rows of tomatoes, and the first foot or so is brown, shrively bad news. But the plants are recovering nicely, growing up green and bearing fruit, and the second and third generations are as yet unscathed. At least we're not facing the dangerous late blight, which caused the Irish potato famine.

All the rain has created other problems, too, like fungus gnats in the greenhouse, threatening the leeks. But we've adapted, planted more leeks, and reworked our schedules for seeding beans and corn when it's too wet to till first. There's always squash to harvest. The damp soil has made our round varieties grow so fast that if we don't pick them every other day, they'll get pumpkin-sized and mushy. Last week I piled up the castoffs to make a summer-squash snowman out in the field.

It's nice to work in cool mist, but I'm hoping July will be hot and dry. Not only will the crops do well, but I won't sink up to my shins in mud. Or get the truck stuck in a swampy ditch. And I can do more of what makes my neighbor Miranda feel like a character in a laundry-detergent commercial: look up at the sunny sky as I hang clothes out on the line.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/07/when-rain-falls-on-cherry-season/21196/