Drought, heat cut produce farmers' yields

VILLA GROVE — Drought and heat really took a toll on green beans and sweet corn at the Kleiss Produce Farm west of Villa Grove this year.

"We do a lot of irrigation, but it has really hammered the sweet corn and green beans pretty bad," Bob Kleiss said.

Extreme heat cut yields on green beans to less than 20 percent of normal, he said.

While Kleiss would normally get 200 to 250 bushels of green beans per acre, this year he's getting about 30 bushels an acre, he said.

"Sweet corn was probably knocked in half," he added.

Kleiss said he applied about 1 million gallons of water an acre just to get the sweet corn crop going.

"My fuel bill jumped from pumping water by $1,000 a week," he said.

Other crops fared better than green beans and sweet corn — but not nearly as good as other years.

"Tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squashes — all are doing fair," Kleiss said. "I would say we'll hopefully get 50 percent of a crop out of them, with all the watering we've been doing."

But he really wishes he'd gotten more rain this summer.

"We can pump a million gallons of water out there, and it's nothing like a rain," he said.

At Bramblewood Farm southwest of Georgetown, Bob Martin said it was a good year for eggplants and tomatoes, but a terrible year for cucumbers and honey.

Martin, who has been doing organic gardening for nearly 70 years, said he produced "far better eggplants than I've ever grown" before.

"I attribute it to the heat ... and just the right amount of moisture," he said.

But the cucumbers shriveled up.

"Cucumbers were just not as adaptable to the climate we had this summer. They couldn't tolerate the 100-degree days we had," Martin said.

His bell pepper and sweet pepper plants were vigorous, but the fruit on them remained small, he said.

Jalapenos, on the other hand, weren't disturbed by high temperatures or lack of water. They turned out just fine.

Garlic was "not outstanding, but reasonable and acceptable," he said.

But the spring freeze was hard on Martin's fruit trees, making it difficult for bees to make honey.

"There were no blooms on my trees in the woods," he said. "The bees had to be fed with sugar water. ... I normally take 50 to 60 pounds of honey from my hives, but I took no honey off this year. I left everything to the bees."

Martin termed 2012 "a difficult growing year, but it was a good learning session for me. You never know when something will pop up that you've never encountered before."

Kleiss said this was the poorest year for produce he can remember.

"This is by far the worst we ever had," he said. "Really, the last three or four years have been bad. It's been too dry part of the year.

"Until three years ago, we never had to worry about watering sweet corn or green beans to get them out of the ground," he said. "Even in 1988 (a classic drought year), we got sweet corn out of the ground without watering it."

The growing season got off to a fast start, thanks to an early spring.

As a result, "we're probably two weeks early on about everything," Kleiss said.

The drought made the cantaloupe season really short, he said.

"If we didn't water, there would be nothing at all," he said.

But watermelons are still growing and close to normal, he said.

Pumpkins look fair, Kleiss said, adding, "I don't think the size is going to be very big this year. I thought there would be plenty of size, as much water as we're putting out."

At the Great Pumpkin Patch southwest of Arthur, general manager Mac Condill said it's been a "fantastic" year for pumpkins, squashes and gourds so far.

"Their natural habitat is dry and hot, and we've had plenty of both," he said. "They can take the stress of August better than corn and soybeans."

Condill said at this point, the orange pumpkins aren't quite as large as he'd like. But many varieties of squash and pumpkin are "good, if not better than average."

Because it's been dry, fungus and pests haven't been a problem for pumpkins, and there's been very little spoilage, he said.

But if the remnants of Hurricane Isaac dump 7 inches of rain on his fields, that could change things, he said.

Kleiss said despite thin crops, he didn't raise prices much this year.

"We've been at almost the same price it's been for 15 years," he said. "People seem to stop buying if you raise very much at all. Maybe because it's they have no idea what it costs to do this stuff."

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