Rain, Rain Go Away

This year’s relentless rain is threatening farmer livelihood, but you can help.

By Liz Rupel, policy organizer

What a welcomed surprise the sunny skies were on June 25th to farmers that have been hoping for consecutive days of rays to dry out their wet, and in many cases, flooded soils. You may have been hearing stories of farmers in the news talking about this year being one of the hardest years in their career — and they are not kidding.

The rainfall events have been relentless. Farmers try to find humor posting funny memes about the rain and sharks in their wheat, but truthfully many farmers are losing hope on planting this year because they have not been able to get into their fields. Some may say, thank goodness for crop insurance. 

But what if one does not have that option?

Take Trent Lawrence for example. He operates Lawrence Family Farm, a small farm in Delavan, Illinois. Trent does not have the extra funds to pay high insurance prices for insurance that doesn’t really work for his farm. The current government-subsidized crop insurance program works best for large scale farmers with just a few crops that are sold on commodity markets, and not necessarily smaller diversified farms with many crops that are sold locally. Nor does Trent have the desire to pursue crop insurance because, quite frankly, he is a “stubborn old man and wants to do this all on his own without help.”

Trent and his wife Jami have been growing vegetables and exotic pepper plants for many years to sell directly to local markets, as well as over the internet for fresh pepper sales. Two years ago they became certified organic and began to focus the majority of their operation on the exotic pepper plants. Just this year, they added growing industrial hemp for CBD properties to their operation as well.

You may have heard Trent’s name buzzing in recent stories on industrial hemp, but what those stories did not capture is the other side of Trent’s business and the stormy cloud that seems to sit over his farm.

I would have to say that the last thing that Trent is, is shy. My decision to visit the farm was based solely on the stomach dropping posts that I read on the farms public Facebook. Post after post of weather reports, stormy skies, accumulation reports of rainfall, and the aftermath of what this “hell of a bad year” has caused at the farm.

I drove out on that sunny day to visit Trent at his farm. When I arrive Trent walks out of his greenhouse to greet me. I hear the plastic whipping in the wind. He then invites me on a tour of his farm.

Trent is very honest. He will be the first to tell you that his plants are literally drowning and that he has only made $36 in revenue from vegetable sales this year. He will be the first to tell you that the pepper plants he has outside are keeling over and dying because they are too wet. He will be the first to tell you that he may not be in business next year if the situation does not get better on the farm.

We walk to a plot surrounded by a white fence. We pass lettuces that are doing alright, but not worth making a trip to a farmers market to only sell lettuce. Just passed the lettuce the Facebook photos and posts are brought to life. Exotic pepper plants that Trent should be bringing $150-200 in revenue per plant, are literally dying right before our eyes. So far, Trent has harvested 2 peppers.

The cabbage is splitting, the brassicas are not pulling through, and those plants were all replanted. Imagine planting two rounds of produce with zero success. The produce that does not make it goes to feed the chickens, who have enjoyed 150 trays worth of food so far. Trent has had to cancel the market sales and produce stand which was a summer dream the Lawrence’s had planned to to help build community in the Delavan area while bringing in additional income and selling closer to home. 

We enter the greenhouse on our next stop on the tour. We find Jami and their staffer Julie re-potting away.

The trays take up the majority of the greenhouse, aside from the walls length of tables topped with indoor exotic pepper plants. Those pepper plants, 150+ varieties of exotic peppers from around the world, mirror those that are outside and are being grown in isolation for USDA certified organic seed production, for next year.  If there is a next year.

(Same variety of pepper, same seeding date, same pot-up date to 4” pot, grown side by side, until one went in the dirt and one went in to a larger pot in the greenhouse. Normally greenhouse plants lag behind their field counterparts; this time last year, bushels of peppers were being harvested; this year, any harvest is doubtful.)

The back of the greenhouse has a wooden framed French barn door style and I can see wheat blowing in the wind behind the plastic sheets. At this time last year the wheat was being harvested. Due to the wet soil, consistent rain, and cold weather, the wheat is still about two weeks away from harvest. Which explains why the ladies are still taking up all the space in the greenhouse.

Trent explains that the indoor grow will be OK. But it is costing the Lawrence family more than they had anticipated in labor. Because they are unable to plant the hemp outside, they must continually transplant the hemp plants into larger cells. As Jami continues to replant, she chimes in that the team has been working for 5 days, with many nights leading into the next morning on the transplant mission, and she fears that as they are nearing the finish line they will have to go back and transplant again into a set of larger cells.

On top of increased labor, each time a replant occurs it doubles or quadruples the space. By the looks of this greenhouse, there isn’t a lot of space left to hold larger cells. Trent says “if we can’t get out and work the outdoor soil, many of the crop will become a loss.”

Trent is counting on hemp pulling them through this mess of a year. If the team cannot get the wheat harvested, soil worked, and hemp transplanted into the soil in time. There may not be a farm next year.

What can be done?

For those that have crop insurance, they can look to the Department of Agriculture’s new cover crop initiative program, which is providing some relief to help alleviate stress farmers are under that cannot plant this year due to rainfall events and flooding. The program is limited to producers that choose the prevented planting option in their USDA RMA Crop Insurance Program in 2019 and use cover crops on their prevented planting acres. To learn more, visit the Department of Agriculture’s website. 

For farmers like Trent without crop insurance, diversification, and risk management tools, like cover crops, are some of the best ways to mitigate frequent rainfall events and adverse weather. 

The Lawrence family and team have done their duty of mitigating risk and using as many sustainability practices as they can. The farm hosts an array of diverse species and with the addition of hemp, they are adding a cash crop and a conservation tool to their arsenal. But careful planning and mother nature will ultimately decide the fate of the farm.

You can help too.

Continue supporting your local farmers at farmer’s markets, grocery co-ops, farm stands, direct sales, etc. Farmers like Trent need consumer support more than ever.  If you need help finding local farms and businesses, be sure to visit the Buy Fresh Buy Local website to view what is available in Central Illinois.  

When you visit the market, go in with an understanding that this year is difficult and a farmer may not have as full of a table as you had hoped. Know that every sale counts.  And if it’s raining, don’t skip the farmers market– grab your umbrella and head out, your farmers will be there rain or shine. 

Give to the Farm Aid Disaster Relief Fund Farm Aid is currently providing $500 emergency relief grants to farmers across the nation who have been affected by devastating weather events. You can help support these direct relief efforts by donating today. 100% of every dollar donated will support a farmer. 

This year is tough, and we will not know the full extent of the ramifications that extreme weather has caused small and large producers in the state for some time.