One of the coldest and wettest winters in decades has produced soggy ground and sluggish wheat growth. No-tiller Kim Starnes and his son, Jason, who own Four S Farms in Salisbury, N.C., say this year has brought some of the worst winter conditions they've seen.
"We've had wet winters and we've had cold winters, but I don't remember it ever being so wet and so cold," says Kim Starnes, who started the farm in 1974.
The low temperatures have slowed plant growth, while the constant wet weather leaves little time for the land to dry out or freeze solid before it soaks again. Farmers who try to go out on wet fields can tear up the land with their equipment — or simply get stuck in the mud.
"We were just a little late getting the wheat sowed in November because we'd had some rain," Kim says. "It wasn't that late, but then it just turned cold quick."
There are concentrated areas where rows of bright green wheat shoots grow thick and close together, but that's not translating across entire fields.
"This is some of our better-looking wheat, but even it's not quite as far along as we'd like to see it by the end of February," he says. "If the whole field looked like this, we'd feel a lot more comfortable with it."
In other areas of the field, the lines of wheat are sparse, and some of the shoots have a purple tinge from cold damage. A wheat crop on another field had to be abandoned entirely because the plants have barely begun to surface.
The Starneses say they aren't seeing as many tillers as they would like.
"Normally, when you sow it, you've still got enough warm weather that it tillers out more in the fall," Jason says. "Fall tillers make better wheat than spring tillers. That's where you get most of your yield."
During seasons where there is less growth in the fall, the Starneses apply fertilizer early in the year in order to spur on spring growth. This year, though, the process was delayed by 3 weeks until mid-February.
Despite these setbacks, Jason and Kim say they should be able to produce a satisfactory wheat crop if the weather is mild in March and beyond.
"It's not going to be our best crop," Kim says. "We've already lost some potential, but we've still got the potential to make a decent crop."
Even though rain and snow have been relentless this winter, soil erosion has not been a major problem for the Starneses. For more than 10 years, they have no-tilled their crops.
"This winter would have been a whole lot worse 20 or 30 years ago," Kim says. "It would have been a mess."
They say no-tilling can lessen harmful runoff of chemicals and fertilizer into water sources. The process also increases the organic matter in the soil, as well as the populations of beneficial insects and earthworms.
"Farmers were the first environmentalists," Kim says. "Before it was 'green,' we were already doing it."