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Local farmers weather storms

An already steep learning curve for first-time farm owner Hannah Tripp has been exacerbated this season by the related forces of rainfall, weeds and crop disease.

Tripp said the excessive rain from storms Elsa, Henri and Ida, which began in July after an unusually dry spring, has since made it difficult to plant on the typical schedule and impossible to pull up weeds with the tractor at her Provider Farm in Salem. Diseases, including one that ruined the first two broccoli plantings of the year, are more prevalent in wet conditions.

She said vegetables like peppers and eggplants — what little there was of them — were smaller than usual.

"Fall is typically a time of abundance, and there's no extra this year," she said.

Gary Lessor, chief meteorologist at the Western Connecticut State University Weather Center, said total rainfall in the area this summer didn't come close to breaking any records despite the three storms. But he noted September is "off to a very wet start" with 4.57 inches reported already at Groton-New London Airport, compared to 4.36 inches in July and 3.95 inches in August.

Tripp acknowledged the fall is going to be "challenging." With much of the yield reserved for shareholders of the farm's community supported agriculture, or CSA, program, there is not as much left as she'd hoped for wholesale distribution to stores and restaurants in Colchester, Mystic, New London, Niantic and Willimantic.

She said wholesale earnings so far are down about a third from projections based on previous years. She bought the farming business in November from its founders, Max and Kerry Taylor, who left for Amherst, Mass., to take over Brookfield Farm.

Tripp started as a volunteer with the Taylors during their first season here in Salem nine years ago and subsequently rose through the ranks from part-time farmhand to assistant manager.

"When they announced they were moving on, it was not an easy decision to try to figure out what to do next, but I just felt like I couldn't walk away from it," she said. "Feeding my hometown is such an amazing opportunity to have."

Despite this year's challenges, she said she's optimistic about her prospects for next year based on the lessons she's learned this time around. She's also hopeful that "wild, unpredictable weather" attributed to global warming doesn't mean every year will be this tough.

"There's that fear. But I still think there's reason to think that not every year will be like this," she said. "So, we're hopeful that next year will be better."

Robert Schacht of Hunts Brook Farm in Waterford said his fields are situated atop a sand and gravel deposit not prone to flooding, but it doesn't mean the land is immune to diseases that flourish in dampness. He estimated about 60% to 70% of the farm's signature lettuce crop was damaged by bottom rot, a fungus he suggested might also have been affected by an unusually warm June followed by cooler weather. He also lost one planting of cucumbers to disease.

The weather pattern has resulted in some crops, like melons, ripening more slowly and lacking their typical sweetness, according to Schacht.

Hunts Brook Farm grows 50 different types of vegetables, he said. A farmer on the site since the mid-1990s, he married his wife, Teresa, in 2001 and together they began to run the operation as a business. The farm now includes a CSA option, wholesale offerings, an on-site market and a presence at the Chester Farmers Market on Sundays.

Dawn Bruckner, owner of Niantic's La Belle Aurore restaurant for more than a decade and a half, said she's seen more extreme weather over the past several years that has affected the yield from some local suppliers like Tripp. But she has found the farmers to be resilient.

She said her restaurant is small enough that she can get everything she needs from area providers even when the weather doesn't cooperate. As the proprietor of a farm-to-table restaurant, she simply crafts her dishes around what is available.

"It was a little more mundane of a menu this season," she said. "Those extra splashes of color weren't there."

In a good season, bright watermelon radishes and heirloom tomatoes provide "an embarrassment of riches" in her kitchen, she said. But she understands that buying locally sourced produce means she can't always get what she wants.

"They make the absolute best of what they can with everything they have," she said of the farms she works with. "It's pretty remarkable."

Ryan Quinn, who runs Long Table Farm in Lyme with wife Baylee Drown, described a similar experience to Schacht's when he said disease was a bigger problem than flooding.

He said winter squash and tomatoes were the main victims of the fungal disease that either reduces the shelf life of the produce or kills the vegetables outright.

He said using high tunnels, purchased in part with state and federal grants, has been one way to minimize the damage from uncertain weather patterns. Also known as hoop houses, the covered tunnels help protect the crops from the elements and pests.

"The state and federal governments have been investing in those types of things, and for us it makes a huge difference in getting a farm up and running," he said.

Drown, who has a master's degree in sustainable agriculture and was described by Quinn as the mastermind behind the operation, started the farm eight years ago. Quinn joined a couple of years later as "the fix-it-with-wrenches kind of guy" with a master's degree in education, he said.

Quinn said he and Drown have been focusing on diversifying their offerings in order to weather coming storms, as well as highly variable temperatures and precipitation amounts. That means growing more types of vegetables, choosing more disease-resistant varieties, adding high tunnels and thinking more deeply about drainage.

"Climate change is coming," he said. "We're going to get wetter, and we're going to get drier; it's going to be hotter when you don't want it to be hot and cold when you don't want it to be cold. Things are getting more and more unpredictable and you have to set up your farm to deal with it."

e.regan@theday.com

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