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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Major Losses. Farming in a severe drought.

I've not blogged much about the state of our farm this summer.  I am usually an upbeat, positive person... however I'll be honest that this year's extreme drought and extreme high temperatures have taken me down a notch or two.  I haven't felt much like talking about it. 

Where we stand now:  last week our county here in NW Illinois was "upgraded" on the Drought Monitor Map to "Extreme Drought".  There is only one category that is worse than "extreme"; I'm hoping we don't reach it this summer but really nothing will surprise me anymore in a year like this.  What this means on a small family farm like ours that grows "specialty crops" (vegetables & fruits) .... there is no such thing as crop insurance for farms like ours.  Crop Insurance is for farms growing grain (corn, soybeans).  So, even if we wanted to purchase crop insurance, there is none available.  This means, in a year like this... we lose, and lose big.

So far, about half of our crops have been completely lost.  All of the cooking onions (meaning the regular red, yellow, and white onions), most of the potatoes, summer lettuces, broccoli, melons, most of the cabbage, on and on.... were a victim of the drought.  The high temperatures are also a huge factor.... in heat like this, crops don't grow well.  Crops like zucchini & cucumbers are showing very, very low yields (for example, I'm seeing perhaps 10-20% of a normal year's yield (meaning we're getting about 10 cucumbers per 100, where last year we would have seen 100).  Now, this weather is also perfect for pest attacks.  The plants are weak from the extreme heat and lack of rainfall.  Our irrigation attempts didn't make a dent.  The bugs began to attack..... our winter squash patch is dying (vine borers & squash bugs), the cucumber plants that have survived thus far are being devastated by cucumber beetles, on and on.

In an attempt to salvage what we could, in late June / early July, I closed our Farm Store and stopped attending Farmers Market.   After serving our CSA program (Community Supported Agriculture program, customers pre-pay for a season of vegetables, and this is the most important aspect of our farm's sales)... after serving these customers, there simply wasn't much left for the farm store or farmers market.  We stopped accepting farm interns the first week of July, there simply was no way to justify the expense of feeding & housing workers when there was such a reduction in income & sales.

Still, not much rain has fallen (we had a few showers, and I hoped it would make a difference, but 1/10 inch of rain, when you're probably 12" short, just doesn't do anything).  Now it looks like our CSA program will be hit.  Most likely there will be no fall CSA program, we attempted tilling & planting some seeds in early July.... nothing is germinating in these conditions, even with irrigation & a few sprinkles of rain.  I have flats & flats of beautiful fall-crop seedlings that I raised.... however I can't transplant the fall seedlings out in soil this hot & dry - they'll simply die.  Right now I'm just hoping to make it through the remaining 8 weeks of the summer CSA, filling the shareholder's CSA shares.... and if I can't make it through that far, I'll be offering all of our CSA members refunds of their remaining weeks.  And then refunding those who already paid for the fall CSA season as well.  I was down in the dumps for several weeks about all of this.... yes, this is my 4th year of farming, 2nd year of CSA, but this was our 1st year of major expansion - we bought the farm last year, bought so much equipment, invested heavily in upgrading buildings, renovated a falling-down mobile home into a farm store, expanded our CSA program, renovated a mobile home for intern housing, on and on.  We're set to incur heavy losses this year.  Very heavy.  However, I'm now past the sorrow and have simply accepted that this is a horrible growing year, and despite our best efforts at fighting the drought, irrigating as best we could, giving it our all... in the end it was simply and completely out of our hands.

I learned 2 weeks ago that I wasn't alone.  I was contacted by a farmers market in Chicago, a market that I had looked into earlier in the season as a possible outlet for our excess produce.  The very kind market manager was contacting me, hoping that our county wasn't affected by the drought, as she was desperately looking for vendors.  So many of her farmers had pulled out of farmers market due to the drought.  I was saddened to tell her that I was in the same boat.

Then, this morning I read an article in our local paper.  It discusses 3 vegetable farms just over the border in Wisconsin (one it mentions only in the image caption, they have lost ALL of their crops and just shut down their CSA program).  I'm familiar with all 3 of these farms, and have even visited 1 of them.  These are big operations.... dozen of employees, selling to the Chicago region as well as Wisconsin.  They're all on their knees... and I was shocked that one has lost everything & shut down the CSA.  If you'd like to read the article yourself, I couldn't find it on our local newspaper's web site, but it was an AP article, and so I found it here.  It's national news, believe it or not:  .

While it was a relief to know the other area vegetable farmers are in the same boat... it still won't change the outcome of this growing season.  And that's a shame. 

1 comment:

  1. I bit the bullet and transplanted my fall seedlings last weekend. I have little hope for them but we're going on vacation and I can't expect my chicken-sitters to mind my seedlings as well (although they probably would if I asked nicely) I will see if they will water the garden once or twice while we're gone. I'll water really well before we go but in these conditions I'm not sure things will last a week.
    I am so, so sorry to hear that you are struggling. Seeing all the burnt fields and even trees makes me extremely sad.

    Hugs to you.