The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Consumer

July 31, 2012

Small farmers struggle as drought kills vegetables

WEST ALLIS, Wis. —

Chris Covelli planted 1,000 zucchini seeds on his farm in southern Wisconsin this spring. Only a quarter sprouted in the parched soil. A few weeks later, he planted 1,000 more seeds and doubled his irrigation. This time, nothing came up.

Covelli also lost his broccoli and green beans to the drought that now covers two-thirds of the nation. Under pressure to fill the boxes he delivers weekly to families who buy annual subscriptions of produce, he recently threw in purslane, which he describes as a vitamin-rich, "delicious weed" that tastes like lettuce.

Small fruit and vegetable farmers throughout the Midwest are struggling with unusual heat and a once-in-decades drought. Some have lost crops, while others are paying more to irrigate. Most aren't growing enough to sell profitably to wholesalers, and sales at farmers markets are down. Those with community supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, are looking for ways to keep members happy, or at least satisfied enough that they'll sign up again next year.

Covelli said he and his crew have spent every day in the field, often in 100-degree heat, in an effort to deliver the vegetables promised to families who pay $14 to $45 per week. So far, he said, they've delivered most of what they promised, although they've had to get creative with the addition of drought-hardy items like purslane.

"There's no secret," said Covelli, who owns Tomato Mountain Farms in Brooklyn, Wis. "You just do what you have to do. If that means doing more plantings, trying different crops, waking up at 2 a.m. to move the irrigation pipe, we do it. That's what hard work is."

Other farmers have not fared as well. Bob Borchardt, who co-owns Harvest Moon Farms in Viroqua, Wis., lost most of his greens, including chard and kale. He also runs a CSA, but said thus far, he's only been able to deliver about 20 percent of what he planned. He hopes to make it up to members when his heirloom tomatoes come in next month.

Meanwhile, he's been in dire need of cash. To tide him over, he sold "sponsorships" of two fields for a total of $5,000. The Illinois family who bought the sponsorships will be able to pick from the field, be treated to a home-cooked meal on the land and have a corporate logo or family portrait posted among the plants.

"We're not out of the woods yet, but we are optimistic," Borchardt said. "All we're thinking about now is getting through this year and staying in business."

Unlike farmers who grow corn, soybeans and other crops sold as commodities, vegetable farmers don't have insurance to cover them in case of drought or flooding.

But even those who have vegetables to sell say it has been a bad year.

Anna Ertl, whose family runs a farm in Raymond, Wis., near the Illinois border, shook her head as she watched a trickle of customers meander through a farmers market in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. In front of her was a table with pickles, sweet onions and several dozen zucchinis.

"You hear so much bad stuff in the media (about harvests), but people need to come down here and see what we have," Ertl said. "This is our livelihood. This is how we survive."

Dan Koralewski, who oversees operations at the West Allis Farmers Market, said 5,000 to 6,000 customers generally show up during peak season in mid-July, but attendance seemed to be about half that this year. He blamed a combination of customer skepticism and hot weather that kept many people in the cooler indoors.

Farmers markets in other Midwestern states also reported fewer sales. In Plainfield, an Indiana town of about 27,000 residents, attendance at the local farmers market is down an estimated 20 to 30 percent, said Brad DuBois, the executive director of the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce Farmers Market.

Bryan Robbins, who runs the Greensburg Decatur County farmers market in Indiana, said it experienced a similar drop in attendance in recent weeks, so he started a new program for elderly customers who may be leery of the heat.

Seniors can now pull up to a designated lane in the parking lot and hand over their shopping lists. Robbins or someone else will then fetch the products, allowing the customers to remain in their air-conditioned cars.

"That's one advantage of being a small market in a small community," said Robbins, whose market typically draws 700 to 800 people. "Not everyone else can do that."

___

Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde@ap.org

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Consumer
  • Biggest student loan profits come from grad students

    This week, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal government would earn roughly $127 billion from student lending during the next 10 years.

    April 19, 2014

  • Smartphone kill switches are coming

    Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

    April 19, 2014

  • Consumer spending on health care jumps as Affordable Care Act takes hold

    Nancy Beigel has known since September that she would need hernia surgery. She couldn't afford it on her $11,000 yearly income until she became eligible for Medicaid in January through President Barack Obama's signature health care law.

    April 19, 2014

  • E-Cigarettes target youth with festivals, lawmakers say

    The findings, in a survey released Monday by members of Congress, should prod U.S. regulators to curb the industry, the lawmakers said. While e-cigarettes currently are unregulated, the Food and Drug Administration is working on a plan that would extend its tobacco oversight to the products.

    April 16, 2014

  • DayCareCosts.jpg Day care's cost can exceed college tuition in some states

    Most parents will deal with an even larger kid-related expense long before college, and it's a cost that very few of them are as prepared for: day care.

    April 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Millions of Android phones, tablets vulnerable to Heartbleed bug

    Millions of smartphones and tablets running Google's Android operating system have the Heartbleed software bug, in a sign of how broadly the flaw extends beyond the Web and into consumer devices.

    April 13, 2014

  • 2012_Mazda6_--_NHTSA.jpg Brakes, steering and...spiders? What's behind the latest auto recalls

    11 million vehicles have already been recalled in 2014 for everything from power steering failure to vulnerability to spider attack.

    Check out the full list of 2014 recalls.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • news_amazonfiretv.jpg Amazon introduces Fire TV to challenge Apple in living rooms

    Amazon.com Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos is stepping up efforts to win over customers in their living rooms with a $99 TV box for watching digitally delivered shows and movies, challenging Apple's TV device.

    April 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • news_zuckerberg.jpg The logic of Facebook's multibillion-dollar shopping spree

    Yet again, Facebook has spent a gaudy sum of money to buy a hot startup. This time, it's virtual reality pioneer Oculus VR, at a purchase price of $2 billion. And don't be surprised if Mark Zuckerberg continues on his buying spree.

    April 2, 2014 1 Photo

  • money.jpg Poor aren't alone in living check to check

    When you hear the term "paycheck to paycheck," you probably think of low-income households struggling to make ends meet. That's even the title of a new HBO documentary highlighting the plight of America's working poor.

    March 26, 2014 1 Photo

Poll

Would you like to see the Johnstown Community Corrections Center remain open after its lease runs out on Oct. 11, 2015?

Yes
No
I'm not sure
     View Results
Order Photos


Photo Slideshow

House Ads