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Local growers fear losing corn, melons and squash crops

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Neil Johnson
June 25, 2012
— Janesville Farmers Market manager Stephanie Agnew said vendors were hoping that the downtown Janesville market would get rained out Saturday.

That's how dry it is throughout the area, and how badly local growers need rain.

"They're seriously talking about a rain dance," Agnew said as produce vendors started to pack up their stands Saturday.

Above, there were hazy clouds but rain was nowhere in sight.

Agnew and several local growers who supply area farmers markets say that near-record dry weather this month hasn't hurt early summer produce much, but it's putting a serious strain on recently planted mid- and late-summer produce.

Small-scale growers who don't have access to irrigation say they are worried that if the area doesn't get significant rainfall soon, popular later summer crops such as sweet corn, watermelons, pumpkins and squash could be delayed or literally dry up.

Local farmers markets aren't sure of the impact yet, but it's clear there will be some.

"It's going to affect what's available later, and it's probably going to affect prices," Agnew said.

For the first time all season, Marcia Galvan of Wright Way farms in Beloit said her farm is starting to see a shortfall in such seasonal vegetables as radishes and cabbage.

She fears what could happen in coming weeks. Already, crops planted at the organic farm in late spring and early summer are under stress from hot, dry weather this month.

"It's terrible," Galvan said, "Our last planting of corn is hurting bad. It looks like it will die if we don't get some rain next week. Like, a significant rain."

Part of Wright Way's 30-acre farm has sweet corn that's only about a foot high, Galvan said. Its leaves are curling and it's already shooting out tassels.

In a normal year, it would be chest-high by now.

Local growers say crops need about an inch of rainfall a week in the summer. Recent rain totals haven't been close.

Since April, rain totals are at least 6 inches below average, and Rock County's seen only about a half-inch of rain this month, making it the driest June in six decades, according to Gazette weather data.

The average rainfall total for June in Rock County is about 4 inches. Compare that to a relatively wet June 2010 when the area saw 6.2 inches of rainfall, according to Gazette records.

Irrigation is helping some, said Tony Jay, who owns Misty Meadows Dairy, a goat dairy with a small, two-acre produce truck patch.

Jay and others say they're irrigating their crops every couple of days. Normally, it would only be necessary every few weeks. Jay's reached the limit as to how much and how fast he can pump water from his well. It's barely enough to keep up.

"You just need rain. You're seeding plants in, and there needs to be moisture in the ground to germinate them," he said.

Jay expects many later summer crops such as peppers could be crippled by the current lag in rain.

While growers with no access to irrigation equipment or a major water source are in trouble, Darlene Schnebbe of Sashay Acres in Evansville said the dry spell is hurting livestock as well.

Schnebbe raises hormone-free cattle, hogs and chickens to sell meat and eggs at local farmers markets. She said the hot, dry weather has put her hens under stress, causing some to stop laying egg altogether.

Her beef production could take a hit too. Schnebbe said a late frost this spring and the recent dry spell has affected grazing pastures and stunted the hay crop. She's having hay brought in from Nebraska.

"The cattle are going to lose weight," she said. "You're not going to see a lot of production."

Crops under stress right now won't just be susceptible to drying up. The longer it stays dry, crops will come under more and more stress from leaf-eating insects that will go into feeding overdrive, in part because they need moisture to survive, said Beth Rude, an employee at Milton-based organic grower Patty's Plants.

Milton's Sunday farmers market already is feeling the crunch of the dry weather.

Barb Guse, a vendor at the market, said only five produce stands were on hand Sunday. The market has room for at least 15 vendors.

Guse said some vendors have stopped showing up because they don't have enough produce right now to supply farmers markets two days in a row.

Agnew said Janesville's market has had a good variety of early summer produce, although berry production is down because of the wildly fluctuating temperatures in early spring.

Agnew said she wasn't sure what Janesville's market could do to respond if there are produce shortages or gaps later this summer.

She said the market board has not discussed whether it could bring in farm-fresh produce from outside the state or further north, but it might not be a viable option anyway.

Many parts of Iowa and Illinois are seeing the same dry weather patterns as southern Wisconsin.

"And the further north in the state you go, they're getting floods. They're washed out," Agnew said. "It's been a very, very strange growing year."


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