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Farmers get creative to replace cash crops lost to lousy weather

By Ashton Nichols • Jul 31, 2019 at 3:00 PM

Marshall Branstool has 15 acres of peach trees planted on his farm. Their yield this season: one peach.

"I picked it last week," Branstool said. "I'm surprised it made it."

June brought 7.04 inches of rain to central Ohio, frustrating farmers who were in the midst of planting corn, soybeans and other crops. So far in July, heat has replaced rain as the problem. To date, the average daily high in July has been 88.2 degrees. In June, it was 80.4. That has dried out the flooded fields.

The problems for Branstool, who owns Branstool Orchards in Utica, go back to January, when the cold killed his peach trees, his No. 1 crop.

"It was minus-8 degrees on January 20th. Two weeks before, it was 58 degrees," Branstool said. "The change in temperature took them out."

Then the June rains drowned his sweet corn and pumpkins, and most of the peach trees had to be removed.

That's a run of bad luck, but Branstool isn't giving in. Instead, he and girlfriend Cindy Zaino decided to plant 5 acres of sunflowers in 10 varieties.

Sunflowers are a good crop to help rejuvenate the soil, Branstool said. Plus, they're pretty and they help attract bees and guide them toward the apple trees. It takes about 65 days from planting for them to be in full bloom.

Branstool will share the beauty with a Sunflower Festival Aug. 3-11 at the farm. Visitors can take a hayride, take pictures in the fields and cut their own flower to take home. There also will be yoga, craft vendors and painting. Tickets can be purchased at the orchard's website, branstoolorchards.com. Tickets are $7.50 online or $10 at the gate Monday through Thursday, and $10 online and $15 at the gate Friday through Sunday. Extra flowers are also available for purchase.

"Most people don't spend time on a farm," Zaino said. "We're hearing it's a different type of clientele than the people who pick apples. We're hoping to allow them to pick a sunflower and then come back (in the fall) to pick apples."

The change of course won't replace the loss of his peach crop, but it will soften the blow, Branstool said.

"Despite losing the peaches, we're still optimistic," Branstool said. "The sunflowers are another way to diversify."

This past spring, Branstool planted 1,000 peach trees. Once the Sunflower Festival is done, he'll mow in the sunflower plants and replace them with more peach trees. In 2021, Branstool plans to plant 4,000 more peach trees. It takes about four years for a tree to yield peaches.

Although he's had back luck with peaches and pumpkins this season, Branstool said his 12 acres of apple orchards are thriving. They'll be ready to harvest in about three weeks.

Lynd Fruit Farms in Pataskala also is having a great apple crop, co-owner Andy Lynd said.

"The apple crop looks fantastic; the pumpkin crop is OK," Lynd said. "It's been a challenge, and we will do the best we can."

Fall festivities including pumpkins and corn mazes will be a challenge, Lynd said, but the corn maze at his farm is expected to be tall enough for some fall fun come September.

He planted his 20 acres of pumpkins twice, but still had troubles. He expects to have about one weekend worth of pumpkins for a pumpkin patch, maybe two. Usually, he has two to three.

"This has been an unusual year," Lynd said. "Last year was wet also, but the difficulty in planting (this season) has been a challenge like I don't ever remember."

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©2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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