PLYMOUTH TWP. — Veteran farmer Jim Doran Sr. helplessly eyed his vast field of corn Wednesday, wondering if the Susquehanna River would claim it as predicted for Thursday.
Mass harvesting wasn’t an option on such short notice, and most of the crop isn’t ready for picking anyway, he said. At the massive agricultural swath off Route 11 known as the Plymouth Flats, he has 175 acres of field corn, 20 of sweet corn, 15 of hay and a few for pumpkins. The corn is planted at staggered times to extend the season.
“Sweet corn is only good for a day,” said the 74-year-old, who prides himself on selling it fresh-picked at his stand on St. Mary’s Road in Hanover Township.
As of 10 p.m. Wednesday, the Susquehanna in Wilkes-Barre was expected to crest near 23 feet Thursday evening, impacting lowlands like the flats but no occupied structures, according to the National Weather Service.
Doran and his son, Jim, moved tractors and other farming equipment to higher ground Wednesday. While the fields have flooded multiple times during his 45 years of farming at the flats, this would only be the second time impacting his sweet corn harvest.
His family was forced to get out of the dairy farm business in 2011 after record Susquehanna flooding destroyed crops on the flats he needed to feed his herd.
This is the 100th year his family has farmed in the Wyoming Valley, and Doran said the prospect of another setback was frustrating. His crop insurance won’t make him whole.
“There’s not much of a profit to begin with,” said Doran.
Farmer John Lucas said he stands to lose 250 acres of field corn at the flats and another 150 acres of corn and soybeans planted near Huntington Creek in the Shickshinny area. The creek was over its banks Wednesday, he said.
Like Doran, Lucas said he was powerless because the crops at risk of flooding are not mature enough to be harvested.
“Thankfully, my vegetables are on high ground, so that helps,” said Lucas, who farms 2,300 acres from Orangeville in Columbia County to Wilkes-Barre.
Lucas, who operates produce markets in Hanover Township and Shickshinny, held out hope the predictions were cautiously set too high.
Grain markets for corn and soybeans have been down the last few years, which means growing extra is the only way to compensate for losses, he said. Crop destruction would hurt his bottom line, noting his insurance would only cover some of his seed and fertilizer expenses.
“It gets harder and harder when you have to start out behind,” said Lucas, whose family has been in the farming business since 1972.
Plymouth resident Frank Vnuk plunged his hands into the dirt at the flats Wednesday searching for potatoes.
“I thought I’d try to salvage what I could,” said Vnuk, who also grows peppers, tomatoes, broccoli and other items at his plots in a community garden provided free by the nonprofit Earth Conservancy.
Vnuk, who was raised on a family farm, is intimately familiar with the flats, pointing to a spot on the nearby dirt road that will start flooding if the river reaches 22 feet.
Earth Conservancy Executive Director Mike Dziak said he hopes the approximately 30 community garden plots are spared.
“I hate when something like this happens because they all worked so hard on their crops,” he said.
In another area of the flats, Mark Kobusky and his friends and family scrambled to uncover some of their estimated 700 pounds of potatoes buried in 36 already-mucky rows.
He and his three brothers nurture a myriad of vegetables, including 1,500 tomato plants, because they enjoy the fresh produce.
While he wasn’t happy about possibly losing some of this year’s bounty, Kobusky repeatedly stressed his sympathies are with Doran and Lucas.
“It’s a hobby farm for our family. This is their livelihood,” he said.
The fertile soil of the flats is ideal for farming, but there’s always a risk of flooding, Kobusky said.
”Anybody who plants along the river knows the rules.”
Township Supervisor Gale Conrad said the flats start flooding around 22 feet.
“I hope to heaven that doesn’t happen. That would be a devastating loss for farmers down there,” she said.
The stress of flood warnings has lessened somewhat for non-farming residents because approximately 40 properties have been bought out and demolished since 2006, with another seven to 10 more buyouts pending, Conrad said. As a result, the township’s population has decreased from around 2,100 residents to 1,834, she said.
“I am so glad so many people who had repetitive losses were able to get out of the flood area and relocate,” Conrad said, noting that additional buyouts are needed.
Hundreds of houses and buildings have been erased from Luzerne County’s flood-prone communities through government buyouts since the record 2011 flood.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.