One of the wettest summers in state history has also been one of the most challenging for local vegetable farmers, especially those southeast of the Twin Cities. The reason: Continued rains and constant moisture increased plant disease and spoilage for leafy produce and root crops.
Jack Hedin, owner of Featherstone Fruit and Vegetable Farm in Rushford,Minn., said he lost $360,000 in crops this summer, the worst loss in 20 years and more than 20 percent of the expected income for his 80-acre organic farm.
“If you get all the rain in one week, that’s bad,” Hedin said. “But what’s way worse is an eight-week period where it just simply doesn’t dry out.”
That happened from mid-August to mid-October in southeastern Minnesota, Hedin said, and many growers near him and across the border in Wisconsin suffered.
Things got so bad that Hedin sent out an e-mail recently to the 870 members that buy Featherstone produce weekly each summer through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. He asked them to consider prepaying their shares for three to five years. The farm had already cut costs and needed to raise $150,000 in the next few weeks, he said, or it would be forced to close.
Hedin said that crops in the brassica family — including broccoli, cauliflower, kale and cabbage — are the most vulnerable to the spread of disease and black rot. The pathogens are there most years, he said, but persistent wet conditions essentially put them on steroids.
Hedin said that he watched in horror week after week as the leaves of healthy crops turned yellow and progressed to black shortly before they were to be harvested. “It was the absolute worst period of time because that’s when we’ve sunk 85 or 90 percent of our production costs into these crops,” he said.
Hedin estimated that he lost 100 percent of his cauliflower crop, 70 percent of cabbage (his largest crop) and 50 percent of the broccoli. Tomatoes, onions, peppers and potatoes also had poor yields because their roots were constantly wet, making them weaker as plants and more susceptible to other diseases.
“We had a near total absence of crops that did well, with very few winners and almost all losers,” Hedin said.
Josh Engel, a partner in Driftless Organics of Soldiers Grove, Wis., said the past few months were some of the most challenging in his farm’s 10 years of production. Driftless, located about 45 miles southeast of La Crosse, raises 60 acres of vegetables and 150 acres of row crops, he said, and sends 50 to 70 percent of its produce to the Twin Cities.
“Our sales were not too far off mark, but the rain just way increased the labor expense to get the same amount harvested as we did last year,” Engel said.
The wet conditions caused large-scale spoiling of carrots and potatoes, two of his bigger plantings, he said.
“Too much water inhibited their growth because the field was too wet and they get this soft rot,” Engel said.
Rick Christianson, purchasing manager at Co-op Partners Warehouse in St. Paul, works with many organic farmers in the region and across the country.
“There’s a lot of folks in the area that had a lot of problems this year with disease in the fields,” Christianson said, especially growers south of the Twin Cities. But weather problems are highly dependent on individual areas, he said, and farms to the north and northwest of the Twin Cities had fewer difficulties.
Co-op Partners distributes organic produce, dairy, soy and juices from local and national sources to retail co-ops, natural food stores and restaurants in the Upper Midwest.
Christianson said he’s not aware that the wet weather has forced any local vegetable growers out of business, and that Featherstone unfortunately had a lot of acreage planted in crops that got hit the hardest by disease.
“It’s kind of a shock that a farm that has been a backbone of the organic community here can take a one-year hit like this and be endangered as badly as Featherstone is,” he said. “It shows how delicate our whole system is, unfortunately.”
Engel said that Driftless Organics lowers its risks by planting about 50 types of crops, and expects to lose a few each year. “When you get into that spectrum with that much diversity, you really line yourself up for a little more cushion,” he said.
Other strategies are to grow storage crops such as potatoes, carrots, beets and parsnips that can be sold through the winter, he said, and have a diverse market stream that includes schools and restaurants, retailers and wholesalers and a CSA component.
“Fresh market produce is an extreme high-risk business,” Engel said, “and if you’re going to be in that business, you’ve got to figure out how to deal with years like this.”
Meanwhile, Hedin said he was optimistic that Featherstone would reach its fundraising goal and that the farm will be able to make a comeback in 2017.