A hard year for farmers

Wet weather challenges vendors at local farmers markets

“We just have to keep trying, and hope for better next year. It’s nature. What can you do?” says Pheng Yang, pictured at his farm in Montgomery, Minn.

Tomatoes and sweet corn didn’t come easy to farmers markets this year. A cold, wet spring meant many farmers had trouble getting into the ground. 

“It’s just hard work,” said Dawn 2 Dusk farmer Moses Momanyi, who sells at the Kingfield and Fulton farmers markets and watched two hoop houses collapse in February due to heavy snow. Organic farming depends heavily on weeding, he said, and he’s watched weeds flourish after heavy rain and kill crops.

Dawn 2 Dusk Farm has endured a rainy growing season to bring produce to market.

Every delay matters when there are limited weekends to sell, said Jan Reuland of Jan’s Artisan Garden, who grows thousands of flowers on a small St. Louis Park plot to sell at the Kingfield market.

“This is the worst year ever,” said Kingfield vendor Pheng Yang, walking through his field in Montgomery, Minn. “Usually I get to play hide-and-seek in the tomatoes. … We just have to keep trying, and hope for better next year. It’s nature. What can you do?”

Southern Minnesota’s 2019 growing season has experienced almost twice as much rain as a normal year, according to Natalie Hoidal, who monitors weather maps as a University of Minnesota Extension Educator in Fruit and Vegetable Production Systems. 

Farmers report a range of problems related to wet weather, Hoidal said. A plant sitting in a flooded field can essentially drown, because it struggles to take up oxygen and nutrients. A tractor can’t enter a wet field, and even walking on the field can compact wet soil. By getting into fields late, there is more competition with weeds already coming up. Most diseases do well in humid conditions, and recent years haven’t seen the typical July drying-out period. 

At the Linden Hills Farmers Market, wet and cold weather cost Racing Heart Farm about a month’s delay, although overall they said the season is going well. 

“We had just seeded carrots and then there was a huge two-and-a-half inch downpour,” said farmer Les Macare. 

 “The goats are the worst,” said Mary Falk, proprietor of LoveTree Farmstead Cheese. Her grass-fed goats don’t want to graze when it’s hot, and they don’t want to graze when it’s rainy, she said. She hopes there will be enough hay for the winter, as it’s taken longer to get equipment out into fields to harvest. Farming since 1986, she’s noticed stronger storms in recent years.

“Everything is more intense when it happens,” she said.

Buttermilk Falls farmers at the Linden Hills Farmers Market.

Ed Usset, grain market economist at the University of Minnesota, said that on his “60-mile-an-hour crop tour” of the state, the crop is highly variable and late as it’s ever been. He can find the “best-looking corn you’ve ever seen” near washed-out, unplanted fields 15 miles away. 

Wet weather is a local impact of climate change, according to University of Minnesota researchers. Climate scientists in Minnesota expect more heavy downpours, warmer winters and more severe weather events. If winters are warm enough, some of the eggs of pests will not die. (The Kingfield market’s Sunshine Harvest Farm lost 60 chickens this year when gnats flew up their nostrils and suffocated them.)

But Minnesota is in better shape than some neighboring states, according to U of M Assistant Professor Jessica Gutknecht. She spoke about climate impacts on agriculture at the Minnesota House of Representatives’ Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division in January. Minnesota soil tends to hold water well, she said. That’s why erosion is a major concern — if we start losing our soil, we lose our buffer to the impacts of climate change, she said. 

“This decline in our rural communities, this urban-rural divide that we keep feeling, I fear is only going to get worse under climate change,” she said.

Gutknecht said farmers will face hard questions in the future: Can I absorb this loss? Should I buy an irrigation system I need once every three years? Can I keep my farm?

New strategies

For now, local farmers are finding ways to adapt. 

Seeing climate predictions for more heavy rain, Racing Heart Farm in Colfax, Wisconsin, stopped tilling altogether last year, aiming to improve the health of the soil and prevent runoff. Instead, the farmers used landscape fabric and relied on worms to essentially till the soil for them. 

Fulton farmers from Yang’s Fresh Produce, based in Roberts, Wisconsin, dug a deep canal to drain rainfall and snowmelt, although the field still floods during heavy storms. 

Taya Schulte said Growing Lots Urban Farm is staying adaptable by working small plots in the Seward neighborhood, not needing heavy equipment to farm.

“We’re not hit as hard as some of the other farmers that are larger-scale,” Schulte said at the Linden Hills market. 

Linden Hills Farmers Market vendor Growing Lots Urban Farm.

Several farmers said they’re using mobile greenhouses or high tunnels to extend the growing season and protect plants from severe weather. High tunnels, also called hoop houses, are semicylindrical structures covered in plastic or fabric that look similar to greenhouses and may feature drip irrigation.

“It makes a huge difference,” said Peter Marshall of Peter’s Pumpkins & Carmen’s Corn at the Kingfield market. Peter and Carmen Marshall started planting seeds in February and moved them inside high tunnels in March, allowing them to bring tomatoes to market early. 

Cold soil temperatures delayed the growing season at Carmen Marshall’s farm, Peter’s Pumpkins & Carmen’s Corn.

High tunnels are more common in Northern Minnesota, where farmers are accustomed to unpredictable weather, Hoidal said. They’ve become more popular statewide in the past five to 10 years, said Kathy Zeman, executive director of the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association. They cost at least $5,000–$15,000, and financial assistance is available from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Mobile greenhouses provide flexibility for John Lencowski at Broody Bird Farm, a Linden Hills Farmers Market vendor based in Red Wing.

High tunnels often cover a farmer’s most valuable crops, Hoidal said, but a farmer can’t cover 15 acres in high tunnels. Farmer Pheng Yang said he’s skeptical of the investment.

“I don’t think it’s worth it,” he said.

Pheng Yang pulls a weed he’s been fighting at his farm.

Hoidal said farmers are also adapting to climate change by planting cover crops with roots that help with drainage, adding row covers to extend the season and planting more perennials like asparagus. The outdoor gear retailer Patagonia created the first beer made with Kernza, a perennial grain, and the U of M is currently studying Kernza and nitrate levels. Perennials can improve soil and water conditions, Gutknecht said, and other options include orchards and hazelnuts. 

“If we choose to act, I think there is actually a lot of great work we can do,” Gutknecht said in January. 

Although it was hard to get plants in the ground this spring, florist Jan Reuland said she hopes to recover the second half of the season. Farmers have a unique version of optimism, she said.

“You have to hope that it goes well or you would never do any of this,” she said. 

Farmers Market dates

East Isles Farmers Market

Thursday, 4 p.m.-8 p.m. through Sept. 12

1420 The Mall, between Humboldt and Irving Avenues in Uptown

Fulton Farmers Market 

Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. through Oct. 26

4901 Chowen Ave. S.

Kingfield Farmers Market 

Sunday, 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. through Oct. 27

4310 Nicollet Ave. S.

Linden Hills Farmers Market 

Sunday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. through December

2813 W. 43rd St.

Nokomis Farmers Market 

Wednesday, 4 p.m.-8 p.m. through Sept. 25

52nd and Chicago

Stevens Square Farmer’s Market 

Wednesday, 2 p.m.-6:30 p.m. through Oct. 9

Franklin & Nicollet

Whittier Farmers Market 

Saturday, 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m. through Aug. 24

26th & Blaisdell