On a hot summer day last year, 14 gallons of fresh blackberries were picked from the vine at Mizpah Hills Farm in Johnson City just a few days before they were sold at the Johnson City Farmers Market. Bringing that many berries to the market wasn’t unusual for farm owners L.D. and Janie Simmons, but things have changed a bit this year.
Finding that many berries as one walks through the many 100-foot-long rows of blackberries, black raspberries and red raspberries on the farm has proven to be difficult this year.
It’s a difficulty many of the region’s farmers are facing as unusual weather patterns have taken their toll on many crops.
As of Wednesday, two pickings from the berry patch have yielded five gallons, which is significantly lower than any year the Simmonses can remember since they began growing berries four years ago.
“There’s not going to be many more. We’re very disheartened this year, but I guess it goes in cycles like that,” Janie said.
The dark, ripe berries that usually hang off the vine on the farm have mostly dried up, leaving the Simmonses scratching their heads.
“This year is unusual,” Janie said. “It started out real hot and the blooms were set and then it got cool, but then it burnt up the blooms.”
But it’s not just the berries that have been affected by this year’s weather conditions. The Simmons’ tobacco, beans and other crops have also been rather uneven.
Growing and selling berries has been a way for the Simmonses to teach their grandchildren, Malachi and Selena Hayes, about money and farming. While the money from berry sales has always taught them the value of a dollar, Janie said the grandkids learned another important lesson this year.
“Farmers have a hard life, you know. We just take it in strides,” she said.
Dealing with the harsh weather is a story that’s been shared by many of the region’s farmers, according to John Hamrick, agriculture extension agent with The University of Tennessee Washington County Extension office in Jonesborough.
Hamrick said corn, tobacco and just about everything else planted this season has had trouble gaining momentum.
“Our planting conditions challenged us this year. We had trouble due to the wet weather getting crops planted, followed by extremely dry weather,” Hamrick said. “We’ve got spotty crops. We’ve got some good and we’ve got some that is suffering in the conditions it was planted in.”
In most cases, planting was delayed by several weeks in April, which Hamrick said is concerning if a frost settles in before area farmers are ready for it. At this point in the season, Hamrick said there’s little farmers can do to help their crops.
“You’re at the mercy of mother nature once you put the seed in the ground. There’s nothing really to speed the process up,” he said.
Hamrick said crops are in a situation now in which they need some regular moisture.
“A lot of our crops are at that stage where it’s kind of make-it-or-break-it. If we get some moisture on them, we have some potential. If we don’t get some on them soon, we’re gonna have some really start to suffer,” he said.
On Tuesday, Ken Nelson, a farmer from Limestone, picked about 400 melons to sell at the Farmers Market Wednesday. A pick usually isn’t that heavy for Nelson, but with the heat and sporadic rain, Nelson said it kind of hit all of once for the farm.
“It’s never perfect, but it’s pretty good,” he said. “Last year was terrible. We had a really bad season last year. It didn’t rain, so hot and dry.”
Nelson’s other crops, most notably his tobacco and corn, have been having the most trouble this season.
If he could wish for perfect farming weather, Nelson said it would be in the 80s with no humidity and a weekly rainfall.
But with such inconsistent weather so far this season, Nelson said it has been difficult to make money with his product.
“It absolutely affects my livelihood. It determines whether I make any money or not, and it’s hard to make money with the fuel costs and the fertilizer costs and labor costs and all the costs put in the pot. It’s real hard to make money,” he said.