Chuck Underwood and his assistant Patrick Denico trudged through the muddied hillsides of the Underwood family farm in Benton on Thursday to display their struggling strawberry crops, which are almost all still green.

“We were 10 days behind, but since it just keeps raining, it’s now at least 12,” Underwood said. “And if we don’t get some warm, dry weather immediately, I’m afraid the strawberries will rot.”

Underwood, who owns and operates three strawberry stands in the central Maine region, has run into obstacles with his berries in previous years. But he said the relentless amount of rain and cool temperatures that have stuck around this season are unlike anything he’s seen in his 23 years in the business.

“In the past, I’ve seen a lot of rain, but never anything like this,” Underwood said. “It’s just unforgiving; it keeps coming and hasn’t stopped. I went out in the field this morning and just sunk into the mud. The ground is completely saturated.”

According to Underwood, the more than 3.7 inches of rain that have fallen since the beginning of 2019 has encouraged an accelerated ripening process in his strawberry crops. With so much excess water, the small berries become ripe more quickly but have less time before they’re too ripe and start to rot. Additionally, strawberries can only withstand so much water until they quite literally implode from pressure.

The 25,000 feet of irrigation Underwood farms has running through its fields has been nearly unused since planting the strawberry crops in April. This is vastly different from the 2018 season where, according to the National Weather Service, the first half of June saw little to no rainfall.

“Last spring we needed the rain. We were using over 5,000 gallons of water per week and spending $1,000 in irrigation for the first month of the season,” Denico said. “Now we have water pooled up on the hills where it should be running off. We don’t need to use our irrigation, because the rain has just been nonstop.”

Justice Champagne, front, and Timothy Taro search for ripe strawberries at the Underwood Strawberry Farm in Benton on Thursday. Owner Chuck Underwood said the crop is 12 days behind schedule due to a cold and wet spring and worries that the berries could rot if the weather does not become warmer and drier. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

In addition to the heightened amount of rainfall, Maine has experienced abnormally cool temperatures. The average temperature for the month of May was 2.8 degrees below average at 52.1 degrees, making it the coldest since 2005. June hasn’t looked any better with the temperature still running 2 degrees below average.

This poses a problem for farmers like Underwood, because the ideal temperature to grow strawberries is 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to Underwood, the combination of prolonged cool temperature and excessive rainfall has cut his profits clear in half and is beginning to take a toll on his raspberry plants. But while his berries are suffering, the conditions are great for his other crops.

“Any type of berry is going to suffer with these conditions,” Denico said. “But things like melons, pumpkins, carrots and squash do really well with this weather.”

Underwood has not only had to push back the strawberry picking season but also shorten it from five weeks to three in the best case scenario. And that’s only if the fields are able to dry up, which appears to be highly unlikely according to forecasts calling for more rain on the way this week.

David Pike, a fellow farmer in Farmington, is nearly two weeks behind in his strawberry season.

“I’ve really been slowed down this year,” Pike said. “In order for things to really flourish, it needs to be steady above 55 degrees. That hasn’t happened.”

Pike, who grows strawberries and corn, says he’ll be lucky if he has corn in the fields by Aug. 1, which is nearly three weeks behind schedule.

“With this weather, this year’s season will be short,” Pike said. “We started late, and it will end early.”

It’s not only the farmers in central Maine who are scrambling to start their harvest season. According to David Handley with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, it’s a statewide problem, and farms all over are experiencing delays anywhere from five to 14 days. Additionally, he said that even if the weather heats up soon, the season will last two or three weeks at the most.

As for Underwood, the extended delay couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“The Fourth of July is our biggest strawberry week of the entire year,” Underwood said. “And when you don’t have enough product, it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen.”

Despite the obstacles, both Underwood and Pike plan to have their strawberries ready for picking in the next couple of weeks.

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