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Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015 12:01 am

Fair or foul farmers markets

Why it’s important to keep on coming

Farmer Hans Bishop, co-owner of PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta stands in his flooded field.
PHOTO COURTESTY PrairiErth Farm

 

It’s a scene that remains crystal clear from my produce farm (aka truck garden) days.

It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was stormy that entire summer. Most fields had to be replanted; some more than once. Some of the vegetables – tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, etc. – that ripened throughout the season normally required only single planting. Green beans and sweet corn were another matter. My grandfather had perfected (as far as possible) a schedule of successive plantings of those vegetables so they’d always be on hand.

Not that year. In addition to fields having to be replanted because fledgling plants drowned, initial plantings were delayed because the mud made planting impossible. Papa’s schedule fell apart for the same reason.

The excessive rain caused other problems. Many tomatoes, bloated with water, cracked open. Vegetables touching the ground often rotted; those further up the plant weren’t rot-exempt.

Excessive rain mandated other work, too. Almost everything had to be thoroughly washed. Usually some vegetables needed no washing or only dusting. But that year everything coming in from the field was speckled – if not caked – with dirt from the heavy rains. Not only did they have to be washed and/or wiped (and some, such as tomatoes and peppers, had to be cleaned individually), they had to be somewhat dried to avoid more spoilage.

Back to that dark and stormy night: There should have been enough daylight for Peter and I to see as we grimly went down the long rows of peppers. But the overhead gloom, cascading down a light rain, had darkened enough that we had to feel for ripe peppers and avoid immature ones as we bent over each plant, our rubber boots making rude, sucking noises with each step. Worst of all was the stench when we’d grasp an exceptionally stinky rain-rotted pepper.

Picking peppers was the day’s final field chore. But knowing the end was near didn’t provide much comfort. We were exhausted, having been at it since dawn. The rain had soaked through our ponchos and boots. Even though it had been hot earlier and the atmosphere was still heavy with humidity, we were chilly. We’d be up hours longer, wiping peppers, then loading up for the farmers market after a few hours of sleep.

As I hefted my basket of peppers onto the truck, I slipped and fell flat onto my behind. Attempts to extricate myself from the mud produced even ruder noises than had our boots. Peter trudged over to help, but my bottom was so mud-embedded that Peter ended up falling down, too. At that exact moment, the light rain became a downpour.

 Instantly it became overwhelmingly funny: the absurdity of my butt stuck in the mud, picking peppers in pouring rain; the whole scenario. We laughed as we struggled to our feet and laughed even more while we held onto each other so that we wouldn’t fall again. I’m pretty sure we laughed so hard that tears ran down our faces, but it could have been the rain.

This summer has reminded me of that long-ago memory. But for small local/sustainable farmers, this growing season has been no laughing matter; for some it’s been one of tragic loss, even devastation.    

Foul weather and flooding are fickle foes for all farmers. One can be hard hit; another just a short distance away experiences only minor loss. Most farms (but not all) in and around Springfield fortunately sustained only minor damage compared to others even a short distance away. Multitudinous factors are involved: high or low ground, even in mostly flat central Illinois; various soil types and the degree to which they need to be/are able to be modulated; proximity to water sources and more. Epiphany Farms, south of Bloomington has a picturesque creek. But when the creek flooded earlier this year it swept away their herd of heritage pigs. Amazingly, all the pigs were eventually rescued, but their chickens, which they raise both for meat and eggs, weren’t so lucky.

Problems caused by excessive rain aren’t just temporary but last the entire season. And this year has been especially bad. According to the Illinois State climatologist, this June was the wettest on record following a very wet May; July followed that trend. When the soil is constantly wet early in the season plants’ root systems remain shallow and aren’t equipped to handle the heat and dry periods that almost inevitably appear late in the season.

Then there’s what happens in very wet soil. Marty and Kris Travis of Spence Farm in Livingston County are among Illinois’ most influential and earliest pioneers of local/sustainable farming, not least because of their commitment to public education. Wes King, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, recently reported about a relevant conversation with Marty Travis:

“[Marty] explained that in a drought their healthy soils and high organic matter help mitigate the problem [of not enough moisture] and they could also heavily mulch their crops and haul in water from other places, but there is nothing they can do about too much water. He explained that this year was so wet that his usually healthy soil filled with aerobic beneficial microbes was going anaerobic and killing crops.”

King, whose job includes keeping tabs on political action/inaction regarding local/sustainable farming also reported:

“…… unlike the conventional commodity producers that have taxpayer subsidized crop insurance; diversified organic and sustainable farms growing to sell locally by and large don’t have crop insurance and have therefore been left twisting in the wind, or more accurately, thrown overboard without a life vest. There has been some improvements in recent year[s] when it comes to better supporting the future of American agriculture, the 2014 Farm Bill included a new Whole Farm Revenue insurance program intended to provide some support to farmers like the Travises, but that program is so new most know little about it; I have even heard that despite attempts to make it work for diversified sustainable farms it still doesn’t.”  

Last fall, I included quotes from a Northeastern local farmer, Kasha Bialas, in a column urging people to keep supporting farmers markets after Labor Day. Parts of her passionate plea are even more relevant this season, and worth repeating:

“While it is our intention to have as many items as possible available, one severe weather incident can cause irreparable damage. Three days of rain can wipe out a 6-week supply of lettuce. Hail tears holes in spinach. If consumers only purchase products that are pretty, farmers would have to throw out half of what they grow. Nature is awesome, but she isn’t perfect.

We’re working every day (yes, seven days a week) to keep our plants and our soil healthy in order to bring our customers a great product. We depend on you to be there to buy them!

Plan your week around the farmers market or farmstand hours and be there, rain or shine. Not everyone can participate in rainy day markets, but we veggie and fruit farmers have been preparing our products for days and we need to sell them to cover the costs we’ve already incurred. We harvest and prepare ahead of time in anticipation of a successful market day, and we need you to come out and shop with us. Our products are perishable and won’t necessarily last until our next market.

You can count on us to be there for you, regardless of weather, but we need you to do the same for us. A raincoat or umbrella [or sunscreen or hat] is all you need. Please don’t forgo the market because of a little foul weather. Please don’t choose to spend your produce budget at the supermarket rather than with your farmer because it’s more convenient. I politely remind customers that our bill[s] need to get paid whether it rains or not, so we are always at market.”

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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