LINN COUNTY — Laura Krouse and her farmhands were out digging carrots Tuesday morning in the near-freezing temperatures and blustery winds at Abbe Hills Farm, a community-supported agriculture operation just north of Mount Vernon.
Although it was frigid, Krouse had one main reason for being outside: It was the first chance she had in weeks to harvest her crop.
“When you get a window of opportunity, you have to go for it,” she said.
While corn and soybean farmers watch for any window of opportunity to harvest this week after a prolonged period of late-season rain in Eastern Iowa, small-scale vegetable farmers are also rushing to get the last of their crops out of the ground before winter cold sets in.
Constant rain over the past two to three weeks has kept row-crop farmers out of the fields because harvesting machines can get trapped in the mud and cause soil compaction, which reduces the long-term health of the land.
Vegetable farmers don’t use combines — often weighing tens of thousands of pounds — for harvest, but mud can cause headaches for producers who use mechanical pullers.
Andrew Dunham, owner of Grinnell Heritage Farm in Poweshiek County — also a community-supported agriculture operation — said a local rain gauge showed his area accumulated just over 24.5 inches of rain in September, making it impossible for him to use his digger to harvest root vegetables. The average September rainfall for the area is usually around 3½ inches, according to the National Weather Service.
Dunham estimates there’s still 60,000 pounds of carrots still in his field ready for harvest.
“Beets, turnips, carrots, you could dig some of those things (by hand), but they would take six, eight, 10 times longer, and sometimes you’d have so much mud on your boots and your clothes, you couldn’t do anything mechanically,” he said.
Dunham said around half of his fall crop, both aboveground and below-ground vegetables, was lost to rotting or disease from being waterlogged for so long.
Last week, Dunham had to skip the week’s planned deliveries to have more time to harvest — the first time Dunham has done that in the 11 years he’s operated the farm. He said members of the community-shared agriculture operation — who pay to have fresh produce from the farm delivered weekly — have been understanding, but it was difficult to send that email.
“It was definitely not my favorite thing to do as businessperson,” he said.
Krouse said the weather earlier this year wasn’t too bad, despite a rise in leaf disease caused by more humid nights over the summer. But the late-season rain slowed down the last major harvest work for the season to a near standstill.
“I’d say these past two weeks of rain have been particularly inconvenient. It’s the most terrible timing you can think of,” she said.
Vegetable farmers have different strategies to prepare for unexpected weather. Krouse favors planting crop varieties that grow faster, reducing the amount of time inclement conditions can affect harvest.
Dunham also plans to diversify his planting calendar next year, hoping that reduces the affect one extreme weather pattern could have on a harvest.
Kate Edwards, owner of Wild Woods Farm near Iowa City, used various strategies to avoid loss, like planting as high as possible to avoid flooding. She said her farm didn’t see much crop loss, but she’s relieved there have been enough recent dry days for her to get any last harvesting done.
“I think if it had gone on longer it would have been an issue, but we’ve been dealing with it pretty well,” she said.
In the short term, Krouse hopes some of the clay-like dirt will loosen up so she can till to plant garlic and cover crops before the planting window closes around Halloween.
Krouse, who has farmed for 30 years, said she’s never seen a harvest season this wet or a temperature drop this early in the year.
She believes climate change is the main driver of those extremes in the weather, she said, and she expects future seasons will become more unpredictable, a troubling thought for an industry whose fortunes depend on whether or not it rains at the right time.
“There is no normal, all there is unpredictability, and I think we’re there, I’m totally convinced,” she said. “This was a lot easier 30 years ago. You knew what to do and when to do it.”
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