What's Cropping Up? Blog

Articles from the bi-monthly Cornell Field Crops newsletter

June 6, 2018
by Cornell Field Crops
Comments Off on What’s Cropping Up? Vol. 28 No. 2 – May/June 2018

What’s Cropping Up? Vol. 28 No. 2 – May/June 2018

March 1, 2018
by Cornell Field Crops
Comments Off on Anatomy of a Wet Year: Insights from New York Farmers

Anatomy of a Wet Year: Insights from New York Farmers

Shannan Sweet1, David Wolfe1, and Rebecca Benner2
1School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture Section, Cornell University
2The Nature Conservancy, New York State Office, Albany NY

Key Findings

  • The 2017 heavy rainfalls and flooding impacted farms across New York State
  • Crops grown on clayey soils suffered an estimated 53% loss in crop yield and crops grown on gravelly, sandy or siltier soils suffered estimated crop yield losses of 25% or less
  • In addition to yield losses, 95% of farmers said the quality of their crop was negatively impacted
  • 30% of farmers said they would have increased their drainage infrastructure, including adding tiling and drainage ditches, if they had known how wet 2017 would be


A wet spring, followed by higher than average precipitation and heavy rainfall events (e.g. the heaviest 1% of all daily rainfall events) during the 2017 growing season (NRCC) led to saturated soils and flooding on many farms throughout New York State (NY). The frequency of heavy rainfall events have already increased by 71% in NY over the last half century (NCA 2014), and this trend is predicted to continue in the future (Wuebbles et al. 2014). Given this, and to get a sense of how farmers were affected by these conditions, as well as how they coped, we surveyed farmers across NY State throughout September of 2017. The survey was distributed online and in paper format with help from Cornell Cooperative Extension, The Farm Bureau, and New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets. A majority of the 45 farms in 24 counties were in areas of the state that experienced the heaviest rainfalls, and we had fewer responses from farms in the Adirondacks region and southeastern part of the state, where heavy rains and flooding were less prevalent (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. New York State percent of normal precipitation for March through August of 2017 (map provided by the NRCC). Black dots indicate counties where farmers responded to our survey.

Heavy rainfall and flooding impact

Of the farmers surveyed, those with heavier clay soils estimated crop yield losses of 53%. More gravelly soils led to lesser yield losses (17%), and for crops grown on siltier or sandier soils farmers estimated yield losses of 22 to 25%. Vegetable, field, and fruit crops suffered estimated yield losses of 38%, 32%, and 24%, respectively (Fig. 2). Importantly, 95% of farmers said the quality of their crop was negatively impacted by issues related to the heavy rainfalls in 2017 (see Fig. 3 for list of ‘issues’).

Fig. 2. Percent crop yield loss by soil type (top) and crop type (bottom).

When asked what the economic impact of the heavy rainfalls was on their farm, 80% of farmers said it was either “moderate” or “severe”, 17% said it was “minor”, and 3% said the heavy rainfalls were merely a “nuisance” and had almost no economic impact. In rating the importance of various issues related to heavy rainfalls in 2017 in terms of economic impact on their farm, over half of the farmers rated saturated soils and field flooding, delays in or inability to plant or harvest, inability to use equipment, lack of field access, and crop disease as “extremely or very” important (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Response to the survey question “How important are these issues {listed on figure} related to heavy rainfalls in 2017 in terms of economic impact on your farm?”. Figure shows percent of farmers rating the issues as (a) extremely + very important, (b) fairly + somewhat important, and (c) not important.

Adaptive capacity

82% of farmers said they use drainage ditches or drainage tile to help deal with heavy rainfalls, yet over half of farmers said they did not have enough infrastructure and/or equipment to deal with heavy rainfalls. Further, 70% of farmers said the 2017 heavy rainfalls led to the recognition of weaknesses or limitations in the infrastructure on their farm, particularly in relation to manure management and drainage infrastructure. And when asked what they would have done differently if they had known how wet 2017 would be there was a variety of responses (Fig. 4). Nearly 1/3rd of farmers said they would have expanded their drainage capacity (e.g. more drainage tiles and ditches, etc.). Nineteen percent would have changed their fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide application timing, and another 10% would have adopted better soil health practices, such as using cover crops, reducing tillage, and using composts or mulches.

Fig. 4. Response to the survey question “What might you have done differently if you had known how wet this summer would be?” The “other” responses included: plant more acres, plant in different location, and increase greenhouse infrastructure.

We also gave farmers a list of soil health practices and asked them to tell us if, for the ones they use on their farm, any of them lessened the impact of heavy rainfalls in 2017 (Fig. 5). Aside from “the use of mulches”, which 67% of farmers said did not help them, a vast majority said other soil health practices did help. Over 70% of farmers said that practices such as “use of winter cover crops”, “reduced tillage”, “use of composts or manure”, “leaving crop residues”, and/or “changing crop rotations” did lessen the impact of the very wet 2017 season. To learn more about soil health check out https://blogs.cornell.edu/soilhealthinitiative/.

Fig. 5. Response to the survey question “Did any soil health practices you have adopted on your farm lessen the impact of heavy rainfalls in 2017?”.

Insights for extension educators, researchers and policy makers

Over half of the farmers reported experiencing issues on their farm related to heavy rainfalls or flooding every 1 to 4 years. The other 46% reported this occurrence rarely or only every 5 to 6 years. While climate projections for NY indicate that we are likely to expect more heavy rainfall events, as well as more short-term summer droughts in the future (NCA 2014, Wuebbles et al. 2014, Sweet et al. 2017), our survey results suggest that, though farmers were concerned about the impacts of these events in the future, they are not as convinced that these events will occur more frequently in the future. For instance, 49% of farmers said they were “extremely or very” concerned that heavy rainfalls and flooding will negatively impact their farms in the future. Yet, only 38% said they were similarly concerned that such events may occur more frequently in the future (Fig. 6). Also, given the drought in 2016 (Sweet et al. 2017), we asked farmers a similar series of questions pertaining to drought. Though 31% of farmers were “extremely or very” concerned that drought may negatively impact their farm in the future, only 24% were concerned that drought may occur more frequently in the future.

Fig. 6. Level of concern by farmers of the frequency of occurrence and impact of (a) heavy rainfalls/flooding and (b) drought.

With climate change, NY farmers are likely to continue facing unique challenges related to both increased heavy rainfall events as well as short-term summer droughts. Resource managers and planners, engineers, researchers, extension agents, NGO’s and other farm-support organizations need to prepare to help farmers adapt to and become more resilient to an uncertain future.  Information collected from farmers about how they might adapt to future climatic events suggests there could be potentially dramatic consequences not only for farmer livelihoods and food production, but also for NY natural resources.  For example, certain adaptation practices could impact downstream water quality and availability.

Based on our survey results, here are some ideas farmers had on how the above mentioned organizations might help farmers better prepare for and cope with heavy rainfalls events in the future:

  • Low-cost loans or ‘in kind’ grants to help with costs of improving drainage (e.g. drainage ditches and tiles)
  • Continued education on nutrient management planning
  • Advice on how to increase soil organic matter for improved drainage capacity
  • Information about cropping options and strategies to cope with heavy rainfalls
  • Lower cost and better fungicides for wet years
  • Increased town drainage (e.g. more funding for ditch digging and for clearing debris out of ditches)


NRCC – Northeast Regional Climate Center. URL: http://www.nrcc.cornell.edu/regional/monthly/monthly.html.
NCA – National Climate Assessment (2014). URL: https://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report/our-changing-climate/heavy-downpours-increasing#graphic-16693.
Sweet et al. (2017). URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168192317302800
Wuebbles et al. (2014). URL: https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/BAMS-D-12-00172.1

This project was funded by Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and The Nature Conservancy. For more information, contact Shannan Sweet: 126 Plant Science Bldg., Ithaca, NY 14853; 607 255 8641, sks289@cornell.edu

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June 13, 2017
by Cornell Field Crops
Comments Off on What’s Cropping Up? Volume 27 No. 3 – May/June 2017

What’s Cropping Up? Volume 27 No. 3 – May/June 2017

June 6, 2017
by Cornell Field Crops
Comments Off on Implementing the Use of Compost in Agriculture, Turf, Landscaping and for Erosion Control

Implementing the Use of Compost in Agriculture, Turf, Landscaping and for Erosion Control

Jean F. Bonhotal and Mary Schwarz
Cornell Waste Management Institute, Soil and Crop Sciences Section, School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University

Over the years, we have been adding less organic material to soil; applications of compost on roadsides will control erosion and establish vegetation in local highway projects, as well as improve yield, suppress disease and improve water-holding capacity in soils. It is important to cycle organic residuals back into the soil system as would occur in an undisturbed system. Cornell Waste Management Institute is running a project to demonstrate and disseminate information to increase compost use through demonstration projects that enhance local, municipal and farm compost use, knowledge, experience and practices using locally manufactured compost products. Compost use posters from this project can be found at http://blogs.cornell.edu/cwmi/2017/02/07/compost-use-posters/.

Compost application on Soybean Field: Seventy-five cubic yards of compost was spread on a 2 acre plot and planted with soybeans 4 days later. Five weeks after planting, soybeans in the test plot with compost were 34”, while those in plots with no compost were 28”. At harvest, the plot with compost yielded 40.1 bushels/acre compared to 32.7 bushels/acre without compost.

Compost application for sediment and erosion control: The use of compost socks reduce sediment, fertilizers, chemicals, metals and other pollutants from reaching surface water by acting as a filter. Compost spread on slopes keeps seeds in place, offers a higher rate of plant germination and establishment and protects the soil from erosion.

April 19, 2017: Vegetation holds soil in place

Nov 8, 2016: Socks installed, compost spread

May 24, 2017: Socks capture sediment after heavy rains

May 24, 2017: Good vegetative growth on slope

Compost socks to restore an undercut bank


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February 7, 2017
by Cornell Field Crops
Comments Off on What’s Cropping Up? Volume 27 Number 1 – January/February 2017

What’s Cropping Up? Volume 27 Number 1 – January/February 2017

February 2, 2017
by Cornell Field Crops
Comments Off on Organic Sunflowers for Seed Butter

Organic Sunflowers for Seed Butter

Brian Caldwell, Chris Pelzer, and Matthew Ryan
Soil and Crop Sciences Section, School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University

Early in 2016, the Cornell Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab met with Bob Gelser, CEO of the Once Again Nut Butter Collective, Inc. (OANB) about the feasibility of growing organic confectionary sunflowers in New York State. OANB is an employee-owned business in Nunda, NY that produces several types of nut and seed butters and other products. The company makes organic sunflower butter, but imports organic sunflower seed kernels from Eastern Europe since local, organic supply sources are currently unable to meet OANB demand. Sunflower butter currently is a popular alternative to peanut and tree nut butters that have greater allergenic potential. Mr. Gelser proposed that our lab trial organic sunflowers, to gather experience and data under NYS conditions.

In general, there are two types of sunflower markets: oilseed and confectionary. Oilseed has greater oil content and is used in the production of vegetable oil, biodiesel, birdseed, and livestock feed. Confectionary has larger-sized seeds that are eaten as snacks or dehulled for food-grade kernel markets, including sunflower butter production. Smaller-sized confectionary seeds that do not make food-grade standards are often used for birdseed. Varieties suitable for both the oilseed and confectionary markets are called “conoil”.

While most US sunflower production is in the Western Plains and Northern Great Plains, sunflowers have the potential to broaden and diversify crop rotations in NYS. In the most recent census, USDA-NASS reports that in 2012 NYS produced 640,000 lb of sunflowers and 50,000 lb were confectionary sunflowers. Diversified rotations may help with weed management, break pest cycles, and increase farm viability.

Figure 1. Bob Gelser and Gael Orr of Once Again Nut Butter, and Dr. Matthew Ryan at organic sunflower trial on August 31, 2016.

With shared interests of increasing available crop markets and diversifying crop rotations for NYS organic farmers, we started an OANB-funded research project. Since we had no experience with the crop, we designed a simple experiment (Fig. 1). We acquired two varieties, Badger DMR (downy mildew-resistant) and N5LM307, an advanced new selection, donated by the major sunflower breeder Nuseed. They are both conoil types, suitable for dehulling. The trial was relatively large, about 2 acres, and our goal was to produce at least 700 lb of kernels of each variety. This is the amount OANB needed for roasting to evaluate the quality of the seeds for sunflower butter.

Growing sunflowers is very compatible with equipment that farmers use to grow corn grain. The seedbed was prepared by moldboard plowing and disking. Kreher’s 5-4-3 pelletized composted poultry manure was spread at 2000 lb/A and incorporated with a roller harrow. We used a 4-row JD 7200 MaxEmerge planter with finger pickup corn seed meters with 30 inch row spacing. The Kreher’s product was also applied through the corn planter at a rate of 220 lb/A, to give a total preplant plus starter nitrogen application of 111 lb N/A. We estimate that about half of that was available to the sunflower crop. Seeds of the two varieties were planted on June 10, 2016 at Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora, NY, at two target rates, 25,000 and 35,000/A, in a randomized complete block design.

The planting was done in the midst of a severe dry spell. Only 2.00 inches of rain had fallen in the month of May at Musgrave Farm, and 0.74 inches fell in June. The first significant rainfall after planting was 0.69 inches on July 19. Nonetheless, the sunflowers emerged well, though a bit slowly. By July 1, they were big enough to cultivate, which we did with a 2-row belly-mounted cultivator that we typically use for research plots. Sunflowers are an ideal crop to mechanically cultivate because they quickly reach a height of 4-5 inches. Soil can be lightly hilled around the base of the plants to smother weeds. Because of the dry conditions, weed emergence was also low. The rows were cultivated a second and last time with a JD 4-row row crop cultivator on July 11.

Sunflowers are quite drought-tolerant. They grew well through the drought and started flowering around August 15 at a height of 4-5 feet (Fig. 1).

On October 7, sunflowers were deemed physiologically mature evidenced by the banana-yellow color of the back of the sunflower disc. On this date, we hand-harvested sunflower heads for moisture content and yields. Plant population data and weed biomass samples were also collected. The Badger DMR seeds had a moisture content of 13.4% and the N5LM307, 15.7% at that time. However, the discs of the heads were still quite moist, around 80%. We did the hand harvest to measure the maximum potential yield of the crop. It is likely that a fair amount of moist material would have been mixed with the seed if we harvested with the combine on that day, presenting the danger of molding during storage. Given the high moisture of the disc, we decided to delay machine harvest. We also anticipated significant losses to bird predation over the next few weeks.

Plant stands were different, both by seeding rate and variety. Badger DMR established at significantly higher rates than the N5LM307 (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Average organic sunflower stands in 2016. Bars represent the standard error of the mean.

Weed biomass was relatively low, though there were a few large plants that went to seed. This caused variability in the weed biomass data. Weed biomass was significantly different by variety but not by seeding rate. The Badger DMR variety had 48 lb/A of weed biomass, while N5LM307 had 202 lb/A. These low amounts of weed biomass likely did not significantly reduce yields.

Hand harvest yields were high. The low seeding rate of Badger DMR yielded the most at 4260 lb/A (10% moisture). The high seeding rate of Badger and both rates of N5LM307 yielded the same at 3100-3450 lb/A (Fig. 3). The low rate of Badger DMR may have performed better due to lower within-crop competition during the dry conditions. These yields are considerably higher than the 1000-1400 lb/A reported for dryland production in Texas. However, it should be kept in mind that this was the first year for sunflowers at the Musgrave Research Farm, and thus pest and disease populations have not built up.

Figure 3. Average sunflower hand harvest yields in 2016. Bars represent the standard error of the mean.

When we harvested with the combine on November 1, our bulk measurements showed average yields of 3300 lb/A for Badger DMR and 3600 for N5LM307 (Fig. 4). Evidently, there was not much loss to birds. The combine handled the crop well, leaving little trash in the harvested crop. The only modification we made to the standard corn head was to install Golden Plains sunflower plates, which direct the sunflower heads in and prevent seed loss out the front (Fig. 5). These cost $1142 used or $1693 new for our Case IH 1644 4-row combine and were easily installed. We immediately put the harvested seed into 1-ton bulk tote bags and installed a screw-in aerator in each (Fig. 6). This small-scale approach seemed to do a very good job of removing excess moisture and kept the seeds from heating up. Drying temperatures need to be held below 110 degrees F to maintain quality. After 4 days, they had dried down to the 8-9% range, which is considered ideal for storage, so we turned off the aerators.

Figure 4. Sunflowers at harvest on November 1, 2016.

Figure 5. “Sunflower plates” bolted on to the corn head keep the sunflower heads from bouncing forward and out.

Figure 6. Harvested sunflower seed in tote bags with aerators. These were moved under cover. This accomplished rapid, low-temperature drying after experiment harvest.

Two more steps remain before they can be processed into sunflower butter. First, they will be cleaned of crop residue, and then dehulled. The seeds were delivered to OANB and they will be in charge of these steps, which we will document. Finally, OANB will process them into sunflower butter and evaluate the quality of the product.

Hulled organic sunflower seeds may typically receive a delivered price of $0.90-$1.10/lb. Estimates vary, but the seeds are reported to be about 60-80% kernel. Whole seed yields of 3000 lb/A would produce dehulled yields of about 1800+ lb/A, minus losses during dehulling. The gross returns from such a sunflower crop would be good, but we do not have data on the costs and losses from the dehulling operation. Drying after harvest is critical and may add to costs. Otherwise, growing and harvest costs appear similar to organic corn. More work will be needed in the future to determine yield variability and cost numbers.

The dry season of 2016 was perhaps ideal for sunflowers in some ways. First, they appear to have a good competitive advantage against weeds under dry conditions. Second, dry weather minimizes the occurrence of white mold, Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, which can affect all parts of the plant. It can also infect soybeans and reduce yields and quality of this valuable crop. We did not see white mold in 2016.

Sunflowers can perform well and mature even if planted in early- to mid-June, making them a valuable option when wet soil conditions delay planting outside of the optimum corn and soybean window. They also do not need high fertility levels and provide diversity within the rotation, with the important caveat of being a host for white mold. Our 2016 agronomic results were favorable. Later this winter, we will also find out processing results from OANB for these varieties. We need to determine the performance of sunflowers in wetter growing seasons. Other factors we hope to examine in the future are whether they will tend to increase white mold on soybeans within the rotation, and whether sunflower pests (including birds) and diseases will increase.

This project was undertaken with the generous support of the Once Again Nut Butter Collective, Inc., Nunda, NY. Seed was provided by Nuseed US, Alsip, IL.

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