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Special feature from the  Farm Outlook Fall 2012  magazine

How were the farmers markets affected?

By Curt Fox

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[November 02, 2012]  The National Weather Service released many statistics about the weather for 2012, and many were not good for the farming community in Illinois.

According to the NWS:

  • The first eight months of 2012 were the hottest ever recorded in the continental United States.

  • The summer period of June through August was the third-hottest ever, and July 2012 was the hottest ever recorded since record keeping began in 1895.

  • From June 1 until the end of August, rainfall was almost 10 inches less than in a typical year; and from the first of the year, the deficit was over 13 inches.

  • The drought map of Illinois showed central Illinois almost always in the severe drought category.

The farming community in Illinois is just finishing the harvest of field corn and soybeans, and yields are down significantly from previous years.

But, those we think of as traditional farmers, with their GPS-guided tractors and huge combines tilling thousands of acres, are only one part of the farming profession affected by this year's extreme weather.

Hundreds of farmers in Illinois have small acreage on which they grow fruits, vegetables, herbs and even cut flowers for the table. Many of these farmers outlet their wares at farmers markets, roadside stands and through community-supported agriculture programs.

There are two farmers markets in Lincoln. The one in Scully Park operates on Wednesdays and Saturdays from May through October.

Bryan Crump participates in the Lincoln market, as well as others in central and northern Illinois. He sells a multitude of vegetables from his farm near Carlock.

Irrigation was not an option for him, and the lack of water made his vegetables smaller.

"My yields are down for the year, with the heat taking the worst toll," Crump said.

However, due to a late-season rain, his harvest of squash and onions was better than expected.

Ken Wilson of Waynesville began selling his produce at the farmers market for the first time. He said that his entire sweet corn crop had to be plowed under. His tomatoes and peppers were the best crops of the year for him. With a smile, he said he will be back next year.

Megan Boerma of Lincoln has worked out a sweet deal for her garden. She gets water for her garden from a neighbor in exchange for homemade bakery items, which she also sells at the farmers market.

"Because of the nearby water, it turned out that the bunnies and bugs did the most damage to my veggies," she said.

A typical Friday for Boerma lasts into the wee hours of Saturday morning, when you will find her in her kitchen. This is to ensure that her bakery items are as fresh as possible for the Saturday market.

Susan Wachter of Wachter Farms, a 5-acre produce farm near Lawndale, had much the same story to tell.

"I mowed down 14 batches of sweet corn, probably thousands of ears, because the heat sterilized the pollen that is used to produce the kernels," she said.

Wachter participates in the Lincoln Farmer's Market as well as the Illinois Products Farmers' Market at the Illinois State Fairgrounds on Thursdays.

Her green beans were way down, a result similar to the experiences of others in the area surrounding Lincoln.

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She does try a different technique, covering her entire plot with a biodegradable black plastic covering through which the vegetables grow. The result is that whatever moisture is in the ground stays there, and the small amount of rain was funneled through the plastic right to the root system of the plants.

Wachter's experiences were interesting this year. Her revenue was down for the year, and the production that did occur was unique. Vegetables grew faster, which led to some of the produce misshapen from lying on the ground, and vegetables that have some sugar in them were much sweeter.

The sweeter vegetables are similar to reports from peach growers in southern Illinois and grape growers around the state. Peaches were extra sweet this year, and vintners are looking forward to a special year for their wine.

"My winter squash is hardy, and the rain from the hurricane saved my tomatoes," Wachter added.

Hans Bishop, in his third year of growing organic vegetables on 10 acres at PrairiErth Farm, east of Atlanta, worked harder than ever to get a crop ready for the Bloomington and Urbana farmers markets. He also has a growing client list for his community-supported agriculture program.

In a CSA program, a farmer presells his crop of fruits and vegetables to customers who agree to buy a specified amount during the growing season.

"My early crops were good -- those from late winter, early spring," Bishop said. They included squash, lettuce, radishes, carrots, beets and turnips.

Then, as the heat ramped up, the crops began to suffer.

Once a crop is harvested, that field is not used again until the next season. Bishop plants cover crops on the recently harvested plots so the soil is replenished. But the lack of rain and intense summer heat damaged the cover crop.

Bishop said the heat was the main issue this year because it caused sporadic germination of crops.

He did use a drip irrigation system to try to mitigate the drought conditions, but it is not a perfect solution. The hoses in the irrigation system have to be moved continually to cover all of the crops that need water, and the small holes in the hoses that let water trickle out tend to get plugged, requiring additional attention to keep the system working. Also, the irrigation system uses electricity to pump water from the well, creating an additional expense.

Still, Bishop is upbeat about the season, recognizing that this is an unusual year. His hard work, adaptive methods of growing produce and the late-season rain saved his crop.

PrairiErth CSA customers always received their orders and were understanding when he explained the trials of farming caused by the 2012 drought and heat and the impact on his crops.

When we visit the farmers markets and greet the smiling vendors behind tables loaded with beautiful and seemingly bountiful produce, it is important to remember that long hours and strenuous work in the fields were necessary. This year's unusual weather produced the additional burden of anxiety for farmers whose livelihood depends to a great extent of the vagaries of Mother Nature.


Be sure to check out all the articles
in the Farm Outlook Fall 2012 magazine:

  • 2012 in review

  • Yields: Complicated by aflatoxin

  • Hybrids saved us

  • Insurance claims in drought

  • Impact of drought on ag loans

  • Droughts: 1988 vs. 2012

  • Roundup: A view from all sides

  • How were the farmers markets affected?

  • Introduction: Troy Rawlings

    • Troy Rawlings: Benefits of GMOs

  • An optimistic outlook

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