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Farmers prepare to plant crops, deal with COVID-19 disruption

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Scenes on the Shore
Councell Farms

Councell Farms is about two weeks ahead of schedule for the beginning of planting season.

EASTON — Planting season has started early for Mid-Shore farmers.

With the recent warmer and dryer weather, the soil temperature is warming to the point where farmers will start planting crops for the season. 

Lindsay Dodd Thompson of the Maryland Grain Producers Association said the soil temperature is into the low 50s right now, and most farmers start planting when it gets into the 60s. The soil temperatures are notably ahead of normal schedules.

"Usually, the optimal time to plant corn is the first week in May," Thompson said. "So we're probably three weeks to a month ahead at this point. Now that doesn't mean that everybody will go ahead and start planting this early, but the conditions are already like late April, currently."

Jason Scott of Trappe said most of the fertilizer has been spread, and "all of ground has been sprayed, but we haven't planted anything yet" at Walnut Hill Farms in Hurlock. He is on the board of the Maryland Grain Producers Association and is the Maryland representative on the board of directors of U.S. Wheat Associates.

"We're typically waiting for steady 50 degrees soil temperature to get started on corn," Scott said. "And we'd also like to see a good 7- to 10-day forecast, as well."

"It's pretty important in that first 24 hours after planting to not have a real cold rain on the corn seed, because if it takes up cold water, it can affect your germination," Scott said. "Soybeans are the same. It doesn't bother wheat and barley as much because you typically plant them in September or October."

Councell Farms near Easton is about two weeks ahead of schedule. Owner Chip Councell is a past chairman of the U.S. Grains Council. He said it's too early to tell what impact the early spring will have long-term. But spring farming is early in terms of weather and work.

As the weather warms and farm activity increases, drivers will see more farm equipment on the road. The equipment moves significantly slower than normal traffic, and Councell wants people to be aware.

"They need to realize that if they see equipment," Councell said, "Most farm equipment is moving at 15-20 miles per hour, and they need to slow down when they see (it). The biggest problem we have is people run up on us going 60 or 65, and at the last minute, they realize that we're only going 18 miles per hour.

"So they just need to be aware of their surroundings when they see farm equipment, realize that it is moving slow," Councell said.

"What's more important than how slow we're going is how long it takes us to stop," Scott said. "I've had people pull out in front of me and then get ready to turn right or turn left and they're stopping and I'm trying to stop with a 20-ton tractor and equipment and everything, and it's not like you can stop on a dime like you can in a Honda Civic."

As part of the food supply chain, agricultural operations are necessary to remain functioning throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Agricultural industries have been characterized as essential business during the state of emergency. But they are not immune from the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Thompson said ships carrying nitrogen for fertilizer from the Middle East are on 14-day quarantines, which can slow down availability. Additionally, herbicides and pesticides that come from China have been delayed, so farmers have had to locate other sources for those crop protection products.

No farmers or workers within the industry have gotten sick yet, but all it would take is one diagnosis to force many people into quarantine. The Delaware-Maryland Agro Business Association has sent guidance to retail members with safety precaution recommendations.

"Those (recommended policies) included things like closing the retail locations to the public, taking orders by phone, limiting staff interaction — so have your office staff not interact with your field staff — and limiting or prohibiting interaction with customers in the field, so basically go out, deliver, leave. Don't interact with the public. But I can't speak to what has been implemented retailer by retailer," Thompson said.

But Thompson and the Maryland Grain Producers Association have been asking farmers to stay calm and continue to operate normally.

"Farming is one of those things that you have to do when the timing is right," Thompson said. "You can't shut down farmers. They're an essential part of the food supply. So we're just doing everything that we can to assure that they can continue operating under the state of emergency while also considering the extenuating circumstances with both coronavirus and early spring. The situation is continually evolving."

Follow me on Twitter @SethTow.

Managing Editor Connie Connolly contributed to this story.

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