After eight months or so of all manner of weather indignity, an ominously warm winter and don’t forget that earthquake last August, we may just be getting to the really bad stuff.
Spring, and eventually summer, look to be arriving with a smorgasbord of pestilence, disease, critters, drought and more. Many of those whose livelihoods involve the natural world — land, sea and air — are facing significant challenges that, unmet, could place them in financial jeopardy. And state officials and others are scrambling for solutions to all sorts of difficulties borne of an array of inhospitable conditions.
But time is short and, well, we’re talking Mother Nature here.
“One of the things the weather has taught me over recent years is when you think you understand what it’s going to be, it changes quickly,” laughed Jude Boucher, an extension educator with the University of Connecticut who works with commercial vegetable growers. “What I tell the growers is that the one thing they can count on is that the weather is going to be more and more variable.
“You need to roll with the punches that they give you, and the punches are going to be extreme.”
Boucher and others are dealing with a long list of punches this year — the warm, dry winter and early spring chief among them. Boucher has advised growers to prepare their land using a method called deep zone tillage, which lets roots go deeper in dry conditions, while also allowing better drainage when it’s abnormally wet.
But with so many buds appearing early, there’s little anyone can do to prevent tree fruit damage if there is a spring freeze. One could also pose danger to birds, many of which began nesting a couple of weeks early.
“That’s the tricky part,” said Jenny Dickson, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “Can they keep warm enough to out-last the cold snaps that might come back in? The jury’s still out to a certain extent.”
There are also critical timing elements that could be thrown off this year. For instance, will migrating birds that return here at their normal time find enough food left; will bees be around early enough to do the necessary pollinating for crops and flowers ahead of schedule?
“The big question,” said Louis Magnarelli, director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, “is going to be where are we headed in next three- to four months?”
But three of the biggest potential problems this season may be unrelated to the weather: the spotted wing drosophila, a fruit fly also called a vinegar fly; the brown marmorated stinkbug; and the boxwood blight fungus. They are not only as nasty as they sound, but also have the potential to send several large segments of the state’s agricultural community into a tailspin.
Jonathan Bishop, the fifth generation co-CEO of Bishop’s Orchard in Guilford, learned that lesson the hard way last fall with the fruit fly.
“We lost our entire raspberry production,” he said. That’s $60,000 to $90,000 worth, he estimated, from a tiny fly that in just three years since it arrived on the West Coast from Asia, has crossed the country devastating small fruit in its path. It lays eggs even in healthy fruit, turning them into wormy messes suitable for nothing.
“One definite impact it’s going to have,” Bishop said. “If we have any hope of controlling it, we’re going to have to spray insecticides more than we do currently.”
But it’s not clear that existing insecticides will solve the problem, and for organic growers of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, grapes and even tomatoes, their hope lies with Richard Cowles, a scientist with the Experiment Station who is frantically trying to come up with something that builds on the fly’s natural proclivities for sugar and vinegar.
“We’re anxiously awaiting their response,” said Sandi Rose, the fifth generation owner of Rose’s Berry Farm in South Glastonbury, which boasts more than 40 acres of blueberries, the most in the state. Last season she lost her late blueberry crop, raspberries and blackberries on top of losses from torrential rains before and during Tropical Storm Irene.
“Tornadoes and floods and an earthquake. Never a dull moment,” she said.
This year she, too, is frantically researching vinegar fly treatments to keep from potentially losing all her small fruit. “I will do the best I can to prevent that from happening,” she said. “It will be expensive. If there is any type of thing we can use we will try it. I can’t afford to lose everything.”
As dire as the fruit fly could be, the stinkbug has the
potential to be worse. While reported in every county in the state, it’s a slow mover and not running rampant — yet. Scientists here think, and hope –they’ll have enough time to come up with a treatment before it results in the kind of crop devastation seen in the mid-Atlantic region over the past dozen years
“It’s potentially a monster, and stinkbugs are notoriously tough to control,” Boucher said. “It’s a rather armored insect, and it tends to suck the sap out of different types of fruits and vegetables. And unfortunately, it has a very broad appetite.”
Scientists also are trying to find a fungicide for boxwood blight, which arrived in the state last year, the second state in the country to report it. Boxwoods, popular because deer don’t like them, represent a $20 million- to $40 million portion of the overall $1.1 billion greenhouse and nursery industry in the state.
“It’s already done many millions of dollars of damage that our growers have already had to dispose of some infected stock,” said Bob Heffernan, executive secretary of the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association.
The greenhouse industry exports about 40 percent of its product, and Heffernan worries that because boxwoods can have blight without exhibiting physical symptoms, other states might not only choose to forgo boxwoods from here, but the rest of their often
substantial orders as well.
“It has the potential of being a nightmare for us,” Heffernan said.
The weather factor
Much of the rush-job research and treatment development has fallen to the experiment station, shorthanded because of budget cuts that have left six positions unfilled.
“We will do our best to respond to the new insect and boxwood blight problems,” Magnarelli said. “However, I am very concerned about the unexpected new problems that may emerge.”
He and others point out that there are some upsides to the current dry weather pattern. If sustained, it would likely depress the mosquito population, in turn lowering the potential for West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis.
Because ticks prefer humidity, a protracted dry spell could keep the tick population down despite predictions to the contrary. Dry weather could also impede funguses like boxwood blight.
Wildlife biologist Dickson noted that dry weather means fewer temporary puddles and wet spots so frogs and salamanders will stick to more reliable bodies of water — not ones that can evaporate and leave them high, dry and dead. She also said the warm winter may have helped bats contract less white nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed many in the past several years. Bats hibernated less this winter, which meant they stayed away from the damp caves where white nose syndrome is more prevalent.
But it’s still mostly wait-and-see for all of the above, as well as for other nature-reliant industries like shellfish. Irene blew oysters off many beds, though Dave Carey, Bureau of Aquaculture director for the state Department of Agriculture, said it could be years before the extent of that damage is known and even longer for clams, which are buried in sand in areas that often are only harvested every four years.
He said oysters did well over the winter because of the warmer water temperature. “The potential negative side of that,” he said. “Oyster diseases also like warm water.”
Shellfisherman James Markow, of the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative, said he spent the winter harvesting what he could after replacing oysters that Irene had washed away, trying to make up for the five weeks he had to shut down due to poor water quality after the storms.
“I tried to sell as much as I could over the winter just in anticipation of who knows what,” he said. “I’m always worried. When you’re in this business you can always get wiped out.”