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Maryland Farmers Struggling Through The Winter

John Lee

This winter has been a matter of life or death on the Woolsey farm in Churchville. CindiUmbarger and her husband Worley raise lamb and cattle.

It’s been so cold, that Worley Umbarger has to stand by when a lamb is born to dry it off quickly. Otherwise it would freeze to death. Also, the mothers are so stressed by the cold, that some are having problem births and are not producing milk. “So he’s been getting up every four hours round the clock, going across the road in this cold weather and bottle feeding babies,” says CindiUmbarger.

David Hochheimer owns Black Rock Orchard in Lineboro in Northern Carroll County, near the Pennsylvania line. Before dawn, Hochheimer is setting up tables for his produce at the Waverly Farmers Market in Baltimore. He says sales are off at the market. It’s been too cold and snowy for some customers. And at his 50 acre orchard, he has a foot of ice covered snow in some places. “So it’s not safe to work outside,” Hochheimer says. “It’s not safe to do ladder work or have pruners, because I don’t want the men to get hurt.”

That means the pruning of his apple, peach and pear trees is delayed. And if the trees don’t get pruned, the quality of the fruit suffers. So, he’ll have to hire more help to get the pruning done in time.

Joe Bartenfelder owns four farms, one in Baltimore County, where he served on the County Council, and three on the Eastern Shore. Bartenfelder says this has been his worst winter since he started farming in 1978. He says the weather did a number on his winter crops. “Well some of the collards and kale that we plant in the fall to winter over to have first thing in the Spring,” Bartenfelder says. They look pretty much dead.”

Bartenfelder says he would be planting peas and spring onions, but it’s just too cold and the ground is too wet. What he needs now is some sun, wind and warmer temperatures.

State agriculture secretary Buddy Hance agrees. He says typical March weather would help farmers get back on track. Farmers on the lower Eastern Shore have already started planting peas, Hance says, which means the season must have “officially started.” At the same time, the cold and snow “is certainly delaying those people that would like to start doing some field work.”

But farmers might catch a break later on, thanks to the cold. They are hoping the severe winter will kill off pests, particularly the stink bug that can ravage their crops. Bartenfelder says stink bugs do serious damage to his tomatoes, sometimes before he even knows it. “And all of a sudden you go and pick a nice, what looks like a nice big red tomato and on the underside of it you’ll have three or four yellow suck marks on it that go all the way through,” Bartenfelder says. “And nobody’s going to want to buy it.”

University of Maryland Entomology Professor Michael Raupp says there’s no way to know yet whether the polar vortex killed off significant numbers of stink bugs. He says we don’t know enough about them. But Robert Dunn of Big City Farms in Baltimore says he thinks stink bugs and other pests know plenty about how to survive. “They’ve been doing this for a lot longer than we have,” Dunn says. And I don’t think that one cold snap is going to make them go away, unfortunately.”

There is one thing we do know. The snow is replenishing the ground water, which will help out in the summer to come.