PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) – By this time of the year, the trees at Roger Phillips’ orchard in Glocester should be filled with Cortland apples.

“Normally there’s bushels of them. This year if you’re lucky you’ll see 20,” said Phillips, 62, who like many farmers in the region lost much of his crop because of heavy rains that soaked the region in May and June.

The damage has prompted several New England states to seek help from the federal government. The governors of Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire last week requested the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency to declare their states disaster areas, and the governors of Massachusetts and Maine are also considering it. Vermont was declared a disaster area last month.

The designation would qualify farmers in the states for federal low-interest loans if they’ve lost a minimum 30 percent of at least one crop.

The farmers say they need the help. Alfred Bettencourt, executive director of the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, a nonprofit advocacy group for farmers, said this is the worst season farmers have had in a long time.

According to the National Weather Service, the Northeast has received two to three times the normal rainfall this season, making it the wettest on record.

Bettencourt has already lost three acres of corn out of 10 acres on his farmland in Warren to the rains, which washed away fertilizer and submerged his fields.

“The plants literally drowned,” Bettencourt said.

While low-cost loans may provide some relief if the government declares a disaster area, Bettencourt said what farmers need is direct disaster funding to cover their losses without the burden of a loan to pay back.

“We feel we’ve been hit hard,” said Alan Rogers, Vermont district director of the Farm Service Agency.

He said his office has been inundated with calls from farmers seeking help. Those most affected in Vermont are dairy farmers, who could not get enough corn and hay to feed their cows through the winter, Rogers said. Some farmers have had to import feed from as far as Arizona, he said.

Disaster areas have also been declared in several counties in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York that border on Vermont, said Stevin Westcott, a spokesman for the Farm Service Agency in Washington.

William Gillmeister, agricultural economist for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, said the federal Farm Service Agency estimates losses due to rain in the Bay State at $27 million, not including the sweet corn and squash crops.

In Rhode Island and Connecticut, state officials say hay, feed corn, sweet corn, pumpkins and strawberries are among the crops that sustained, or would be sustaining 40 to 70 percent losses.

Ken Ayars, chief of the Division of Agriculture at Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management, said many farmers were late in planting because of the rain. Those who did plant crops watched them rot or wash away.

“It has compressed the growing season for farmers, and you need a certain number of days for crops to mature,” Ayars said.

Robert Fratantuono, 14, was selling produce from his father’s farm in Coventry at a farmer’s market in Providence Thursday. He said the farm was unable to grow any feed corn this year and grew less sweet corn than in previous years. The wet weather also killed many of the farm’s strawberries, he said.

“The rain is really messing us up,” he said.

Farmers generally prefer dry years to extremely wet ones because they can irrigate when it’s dry, even though irrigation is an expensive process, Bettencourt said.

“When there’s wet weather, there’s not much you can do,” Bettencourt said. “Even if you try to drain the water, there’s no where to drain it to, everything is just saturated.”

Tim Whippen, a customer service representative at Russell Orchards in Ipswich, Mass., not far from Crane Beach, said June rains turned about 40 percent of its strawberry crop into insect-infested mush.

The 120-acre farm offers pick-your-own fruit as well as a retail farm store.

Russell’s late June strawberry festival usually draws in 1,000 people, he said. This year, fewer than 100 people showed.

“It absolutely bombed because the weather was so bad,” said Whippen. “We depend on festivals for our income.”

“It’s a pretty hard knock in the early time of the year,” he said.

But Russell’s raspberries and blueberries are doing well, and Whippen believes they can make up this year’s losses with a good apple season in the fall.

“We don’t know what fall will be like, but it better be good,” he said.

AP-ES-07-27-06 1711EDT


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