Small farmers struggle as drought kills vegetables

Associated Press Modified: July 31, 2012 at 10:32 am •  Published: July 31, 2012
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WEST ALLIS, Wis. (AP) — 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."

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