I have been growing fresh market fruits and vegetables for 30 years, from the mid-Atlantic to California. For the last 23 of those years, I have owned and operated Featherstone Farm in southeastern Minnesota, with my family, many dedicated employees and a remarkable community of neighbors and customers.
It was this community that helped our farm not only to survive, but to thrive in the aftermath of flash flooding in August 2007, when most of a season’s work was wiped out in a single 500-year rain event.
I have much to be grateful for, even optimistic about.
And yet, this harvest season, as I wait out another wet spell when we should be harvesting a winter’s worth of carrots, I find myself grappling with pessimism. Not for my own farm, whose future seems secure with the aforementioned community support. Rather, my creeping pessimism is for the future of the “local foods” sector in general, given the reality of destabilized climate.
Simply put, I struggle to see any realistic scenario in which fresh market vegetable producers in the Upper Midwest can be consistently and sufficiently profitable in an era of more frequent, more intense rainfall during the growing season. It’s hard to imagine that many of us will be left in 20 or 30 years, much less how the “industry” can grow in response to consumer demand.
The issue as I now see it is not the risk of acute weather events such as Featherstone Farm experienced in 2007. Rather, it is the deepening losses that we’ve seen in recent years, due to ever more frequent, chronic wet periods during the growing season.
The Upper Midwest may simply be becoming too wet, too often, to grow fresh market vegetables profitably.
To understand this problem, it is important to clear up two basic misunderstandings about “local foods.” First, in the days when my wife and I used to go to farmers markets, customers would often make friendly comments like “Nice all-day rain today; you farmers must be really happy.”
I was always tempted to shout “No! You don’t understand. We have irrigation at our farm. We almost never want it to rain.”
Look around the produce section of any grocery store. Most items there are grown in the irrigated desert, from apples grown in Washington state to nearly everything else grown in Central Valley California. Many of the annual crops — tomatoes, for example — might never have seen a drop of rain, ever.
Fruit and vegetable varieties are bred largely for market appeal and shipping capability — only secondarily for taste and field-hardiness. When exposed to rainfall — especially to persistent field moisture — these crops get sick fast.
In my experience at Featherstone Farm, a perfectly healthy crop of cabbage or carrots can experience losses of 20-30 percent with just a few days or weeks of surplus moisture, due to disease that makes them unmarketable just before harvest. And because vegetable crops are extraordinarily expensive to get established (compared, say, to corn or soybeans), the absolute losses a grower can incur are staggering.
A second misunderstanding about local foods is the natural — but profoundly mistaken — assumption that “if it’s grown 50 miles down the road rather than 1,500 miles away in California, then it’s bound to be cheaper.”
All my professional experience on farms in both California and Minnesota tells me that the cost of transportation is a drop in the bucket compared with losses a Midwestern vegetable grower experiences when it rains, particularly to excess.
This, I’ve concluded recently, must be the reason that there are so very few legacy vegetable producers left in the Great Lakes region, compared with three or four generations ago. It’s not the short season that hurts — it’s the rainfall. And the competition from cheap West Coast imports.
The Minnesota State Climatology Office confirms that wetter weather is now both more common and more intense and that this trend is likely to continue in the future. Across the state, 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-inch daily rainfall totals have become more frequent during the last 40 years — by 21 percent, 39 percent, 66 percent and 84 percent, respectively. And the heaviest rain of the year is now 13 percent larger than it was 60 years ago.
Moreover, research summarized in the 2014 National Climate Assessment indicates that the five wettest days of the year will be 10-20 percent wetter by midcentury than they were between 1971 and 2000.
I have a hard time imagining how any fresh market vegetable farm anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains could remain consistently profitable enough to stay in business in this sort of sodden future — especially given the current concentration of produce “industry” power in the hands of a few big players, who make a business of squeezing farmers nationwide in a “race to the bottom” on pricing.
It does not help at all that there is no meaningful crop-insurance option for fresh fruits and vegetables grown in our area.
None of this would really matter were it not for the current public love affair with the concept of “buying local” and “knowing your farmer.” Consumers like the idea of supporting Minnesota Grown produce, and for many good reasons.
But here’s what I’m now calling the Local Food Choice, in an era of climate adaptation: Pay more for fresh produce grown regionally in four-season climates or see “local farms” die a slow death of a thousand cuts, attempting to be profitable selling rain-soaked crops at desert prices.
Jack Hedin will be a panelist in “A Conversation on the Future of Farming” at the Guthrie Theater from 2:30-4 p.m. Tuesday. It is part of Food Ag Ideas Week sponsored by Grow North.