FARM SECTION: Specialty crop growers worry about repeat of 2012 in 2013

Cory Crawford pulls last year’s tomato plants from a high tunnel as he gets ready for this year’s planting. Tomatoes, melons and sweet corn are the biggest crops for Crawford, who worries about a repeat of 2012 conditions in 2013. Crawford and other alter
Posted: Feb. 11, 2013 11:57 am Updated: Mar. 11, 2013 12:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Cory Crawford usually does eight plantings of sweet corn every year.

Last year the Ursa specialty crop grower stopped at six.

"It was so dry, and the seed was so expensive, I just cut back on it," Crawford said. "It wasn't worth the risk. If it didn't come up, I'd be out all the seed cost and the fertilizer."

Last year's hot, dry conditions devastated some row crops while also taking a big toll on the specialty crops popular at area farmers markets -- and Crawford worries there might be a repeat in 2013.

"There's some moisture in the top foot or so, but after you go down a couple feet in the soil it's dry again," he said.

"If we don't get any more snow this winter or some good rainfall in the spring, soil moisture is going to be evaporating pretty quickly. Come early summer, if it's as hot and dry as last year, it will be a lot worse this year. There's no subsoil moisture there."

That's a big worry for Brad Whiston, who raises vegetable crops with his wife Jessica on their Terripin Farms near Fowler.

"Not getting enough winter precipitation is going to be the biggest issue this year," Whiston said. "We're inches, inches under where we're supposed to be."

Making up the difference would require several feet of snow, but "I'd take it right now," Whiston said.

The moisture shortfall was evident midway through last year's growing season.

"Once we got into midsummer and fall crops, if we couldn't irrigate, it wouldn't work," Whiston said. "We tried growing a lot of soil brassicas that we direct seed into the ground, but we couldn't get them to germinate."

Even irrigation posed some challenges.

"The gas, the time and you're only able to haul may be 2,000 gallons at a time. You blow through that in no time flat," Whiston said.

Crawford plants garden over six to eight acres, with tomatoes, melons and sweet corn his biggest crops.

The work begins in early February as Crawford starts tomato and pepper seedlings. The plants grow indoors, first in the basement then in a small greenhouse, for 8-10 weeks before moving outside.

By mid-March, Whiston will be planting lettuce, spinach and other crops that can handle cold weather.

"It's going to be a challenge this year, but we'll still give it a go," Whiston said. "We might have to cut back a little bit on some of our fall crops like winter squash. You don't really plant those until June or so. We'll see how the season is going before we get into that too heavy."

Harvest starts out with strawberries, usually in early May, and wraps up with pumpkins and squash in the fall.

No matter what the weather, "I'll get a crop in most cases every year, but it may not be as good of a crop as it should be," said Crawford, who has been raising crops for more than 20 years and "really seriously" for the past 10. "Last year I had some pumpkins, maybe 25 percent of what I normally would have. The quality was outstanding, but I just didn't get plants established. They didn't germinate."

Not every crop thrives with plenty of moisture.

Cantaloupe and watermelon like dry weather. "It makes them sweeter," Crawford said.

Given the choice, though, Crawford prefers wet years to dry ones.

While the melon crop may not be as good, "the sweet corn will be better. Other things will be better," Crawford said.

"It takes a lot more labor when it's dry. Having to haul water ever other day for three months straight is a lot of extra work, a lot of extra cost."

Crawford uses hoop houses to get an earlier crop, plants some of his crop on plastic and uses irrigation.

"If you're going to do it for a living, you pretty much have to make the investment in it," he said.

But like any farmer, he's at the mercy of the weather.

"We can't control the weather, just hope for better conditions," he said. "It's one extreme or the other. It was so wet there for two or three straight years, then so dry for almost two years straight."

In 10 years, there's been one growing season with "nearly perfect" weather conditions, Crawford said, and for this year, "I'm not really counting on it."





Area farmers markets hope to see a rebound in vendor numbers in 2013.

"Vendors were definitely down last year, probably 25 percent at least from a normal year," said Cory Crawford, who coordinates the Quincy Mall farmers market.

"Some of the vendors just have a small backyard garden. They come to the market when they have a little extra," he said. "Several vendors do it pretty full-time and have a lot of money and time involved in it."

Weather conditions in the growing season help determine what's available for each market.

"I think the number of vendors will come back up if the weather improves," Crawford said.