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Rain delay: farms and farmers try to cope with bad weather (06/09/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Photo by Chris Rogers
      Bad weather has smothered crops and stymied planting on farms across the region. The cost of a cheeseburger and sweet corn this summer may make even city slickers feel the impact.
An endless deluge has beleaguered the region for weeks, saturating the soil, and derailing the growing season on local farms. Soggy soils make it impossible to put tractors in the field and prevent farmers from planting. It is just the latest in a series of misfortunes for farmers. The situation is so dire that some dairy farmers will have a tough choice to make about whether and how to stay in business later this year.

All of that will have an impact on prices at the grocery store and the availability of local produce. While farmers struggle to plant their crops now, consumers will feel the impact at the farmers market, the grocery store, and the bank, in a classic case of supply and demand economics.

Hay disaster?

Dairy and beef producers have been hit especially hard in recent months. Most Midwestern dairies rely on growing much of their own feed, but drought last fall followed by winter kill ruined approximately half of Winona County's hay fields, according the Winona County Farm Service Agency (FSA) office. Rising corn prices early last year encouraged area farmers to grow more corn and less hay. That decrease in acreage, followed by the drought, dramatically reduced last year's hay harvest. Now local hay supplies have dwindled, hay prices have doubled, and local farmers are importing bales from Idaho. Sadly, the worst is yet to come, said Winona County FSA Executive Director John McRae. Since supplies have vanished, and farmers cannot work the fields to plant more hay (or any crop) to replenish them, hay prices will continue to surge.

"There will be some tough management decisions made as we go into winter," McRae said, when asked if farmers would be forced out of business. "You get to a point where you can't afford to feed cattle, so what do you do? You get rid of the cattle."

McRae added that the county FSA has applied for federal crop disaster relief from the Secretary of Agriculture, but advises that farmers should not count on such aid. Since the proposed disaster took place over a period of months rather than in one catastrophic event, "I don't know if we'll meet the classification even though the impact is huge," he said.

Dairy and crop farmers do have some safety nets. Those growing crops can receive crop insurance payments for substandard harvests or prevented planting. Dairy farmers may receive government assistance when the cost of producing milk nears the price farmers receive for it. Such payments were triggered from February to April of this year in Winona County, according to the FSA. May is still being calculated. The FSA was unwilling to provide figures on the total amount of assistance received by Winona County dairy farmers without a formal Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) request, which can take weeks or longer. However, the FSA did report that the amount of assistance has greatly increased over the course of the year, up from less than five cents per hundredweight of milk in February to 69 cents in April. That is roughly equal to four percent of the market price for a hundredweight of milk: $16.40 according to the FSA.

Winona County Farm Bureau President and dairy farmer Glen Groth said some dairies will operate at a loss this year and others may go out of the business. With costs outpacing returns, farmers nearing retirement, in particular, he said, are not willing to risk their nest eggs just to say they were farming another year.

"But it only goes so far," Groth said. Dairy margin assistance is capped at 2.4 million pounds of milk per farm, meaning that while small to mid-sized dairies may have their entire production covered, larger dairies, including family operations that support multiple family members, bear the brunt of high feed costs, Groth explained.

"The feed prices are so high people can't afford to keep those cows around." Groth added. Some dairies are culling their herds to cut feed costs. "Some people are bitting the bullet and paying for the expensive hay, others are looking for alternatives," even if that means less protein, Groth said.

For non-farmers, all of this means increased prices for food and less money coming into local economies from farm and farmer spending. "You'll see prices going up, especially in the beef department," Groth said. "But farmers aren't necessarily getting rich on that. Feed prices are very high, land cost and fuel [costs] are very high. You break even at best, and there's a lot of uncertainty."

Less sweet corn this summer

Produce growers, too, have suffered this spring. Delayed planting, combined with cold temperatures and overcast skies, has stymied spring crops and threatens the production of crops that require lots of time to grow, such as sweet corn. Laurie Timm of Fairview Farms near Altura said that her husband worked through the night during a rare, somewhat dry spell to get in a planting of sweet corn, but the farm still has made half the number of sweet corn plantings than it had in 2012. "It's going to shorten sweet corn season by a month," Timm said.

Lonnie Dietz, of Whitewater Gardens near Elba, said that though he is still trying to get all of the spring and summer crops in the field, fall planting dates are coming up. "We still have time to get crops in for the fall, but we're going to have a big hole in production this summer. Spring is not going to happen." He added that across the state harvests of canning crops like peas and sweet corn will also be down.

Potatoes, too, have suffered for some farmers. "We had reports that some people's seed potatoes have all rotted," Timm said. "All of ours are coming up, but last year we were digging new potatoes by June 10. This year, we're just hoping that they're up by June 10."

Just as Timm's husband worked through the night to plant sweet corn, produce farmers have to make the most of any opportunity to work the fields. "We've been laughing that we have to get our 40 hours a week in one day a week," Timm said. She added that she and her husband have had to work the fields in less-than-ideal conditions. Driving a tractor in wet soil can compact soils and hinder root development. Nevertheless, Timm said, "We've been putting things in ground that is almost too wet. If it's at all borderline, we plant. You can't wait for ideal soil conditions."

Produce farmers do not have government crop insurance programs as crop and dairy farmers do, so they will have to bear all of their losses from the cold, wet spring. "We're just going to say, hopefully this year we break even," Timm said. Diversifying their production allows produce growers to cope with that. Sales of perennial asparagus (no planting required) by Fairview Farms and greenhouse tomatoes by Whitewater Gardens have helped the farmers keep their heads above water.

If things do not dry out, though, greenhouse tomato and asparagus sales might not be enough. Timm said that she and her husband also have fields in row crops, so they can at least count on some crop insurance payment, but "for our son, who's only doing vegetables, it's a whole other story. [He and his wife will] be looking at finding jobs in town if the vegetable crops don't pan out."

For better or worse that is the nature of the farming, Timm said. "All we can do is laugh. You can't do a thing to change it, and it doesn't pay to get depressed and get in a tizzy about it either."

Orchards combat disease

The weeks of damp weather that have beset Minnesota and Wisconsin have been a cause of concern for fruit growers as well. Apple scab and fire blight the greatest apple tree maladies thrive in wet conditions. Apple growers strive to prevent the spread of the diseases through preventive management, spraying with fungicides for apple scab for instance. Tom Ferguson of Morningside Orchard in Galesville, Wis., said that cool temperatures and good management have prevented disease in his orchards. Timm, who also grows apples and other fruit, said that she has begun to see scab on her apples, and that while she sprays compounds to control fungus, the non-stop rain washes anti-fungal treatments away.

Ferguson said that another effect weather may have on his farm is the fertilization of apple blossoms. The bees have done their work and the trees have been pollinated, he said, but whether that pollen actually makes it to the flower's ovaries, and begins to form an apple, depends on weather. Unlike swimming sperm, pollen particles must grow towards the ovary, sending a shoot down to the ovary, explained Ferguson. "What anything needs to grow is heat and some sunshine," he said. Whether all of his trees have gotten enough of that to set fruit remains to be seen, he said.

Nevertheless, "We're in so much better a position than last year because we actually have something," Ferguson said. Last year, the majority of apple blossoms across the region were killed by frost, devastating apple production.  


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