Extreme weather leaves Walworth County crops, spirits wilting
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Sweltering temperatures and parched fields have frayed psyches and challenged pocketbooks of many farmers and business owners across Walworth County.
The latest U.S. Drought Monitor downgraded southern Wisconsin from moderate to severe as thermometers often surged 10 or more degrees above normal and rainfall totals remained less than 5 percent of normal in many areas.
(Read all of this week's stories from Walworth County Sunday HERE. )
As of July 15, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said soil moisture conditions were 91 percent to 92 percent very short in the south central and southeast districts of Wisconsin, compared to a state average of 52 percent.
Wednesday’s inch of rain is little consolation, but things could be worse: Two-thirds of Illinois is classified as severe or worse and Indiana stands at 70 percent. And the Midwest is a microcosm of what’s happening nationwide, as the Palmer Drought Index reported this week that 55 percent of the country is suffering moderate to exceptional drought, the highest mark in 56 years.
And no sector has been hit harder than agriculture, which pumps $59 billion into Wisconsin’s economy annually while accounting for 354,000 jobs.
One of those whose livelihood is being threatened is Tim Huth, who owns LotFotL Community Farm on Quinney Road in Sugar Creek Township.
He got into community-supported agriculture in 2007 and started his own operation in 2011.
Huth said he and his family are doing well enough financially, because his 350 CSA customers pay in advance. But that doesn’t mean everything is great. Huth was forced to skip a week of supplying CSA customers recently, so he and his clients agreed to an extra delivery at the end of the growing season.
“We are staying afloat because it’s a strong business structure, but the drought has taken its toll on our wholesale accounts,” said Huth, who has 20 acres of vegetables. “We’ve got 140-gallon water fill tanks that we lay down a good amount of water, but when you go weeks and weeks and weeks without rain … it’s been so hot, windy and dry that the moisture just goes away.
“We got off to a great start this year, but we’ve lost so many crops since then,” he said early last week.
Mother Nature has created that scenario throughout the area, and it’s even worse for those who don’t have crop insurance or can’t irrigate.
A June filled with record warmth and scorching temperatures during the first week of July dampened spirits and even canceled some fireworks displays as burn bans and cooling places became part of the daily vocabulary.
Current conditions have turned back the calendar to the deadly, more humid heat wave of July 1995. However, they more closely resemble the drought of 1988.
Tom Oasen vividly remembers that summer, because that’s the year he started working for the Farm Service Agency in Walworth County.
“Anybody who hasn’t been around long, all they have to do is look out their window, and that’s what 1988 was like,” Oasen said. “It’s just not a good situation. I’m using the drought of ’88 as my guide when talking to farmers, but it’s still too early to know what the overall extent of this year’s drought will be.”
In the meantime, Gov. Scott Walker on July 9 declared a state of emergency in 42 southern Wisconsin counties.
The declaration lasts 60 days and allows for speeding up the issuing of permits for farmers to temporarily use lakes or streams for irrigation.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Monday a series of initiatives he said would streamline the disaster designation process, and said the interest rate for emergency loans would be lowered from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent.
Oasen said the most important thing people can do is have their finances and paperwork in order.
“We’re advising those farmers who have insurance to contact their crop insurance agents and schedule an appointment with the adjuster to do an inspection,” Oasen said. “If they aren’t insured, they need to keep good records of everything they’ve done and their yields, and then in the event they qualify for an emergency loan or some other form of assistance, we’ll be able to help them get their application going sooner.”
The Wisconsin Farm Center is part of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in Madison.
Dave Hansen farmed in the Viroqua area for 22 years before joining the WFC. He said the seven-person operation helps processing and agribusiness companies, but individual farmers are their chief clientele, and crisis management is their focus these drought-stricken days.
For the complete story, see HERE.