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2023 is an unpredictable year for central Illinois specialty growers

Hydroponic tomatoes are now just as tasty as tomatoes grown outside in perfect summer conditions, scientists say.
Hydroponic tomatoes are now just as tasty as tomatoes grown outside in perfect summer conditions, scientists say.

May is usually one of the wettest months of the year for Illinois, but Illinois state climatologist Trent Fordsays that's not the case in 2023. He says a dry spell that started in April ran through May, leading to drier soil and a state of moderate drought throughout much of central Illinois.

Those conditions impact agriculture operations both big and small. Smaller growers often plant a more diverse fare than corn and soybeans, the major cash crops of Illinois farms.

Angela Thompson runs a family farm in Athens, near Springfield. It's not hard for her to identify her major challenge right now.

"Definitely low rainfall. We're out there doing rain dances in the field right now," she said.

For her, the problem isn't the lack of rain itself, but rather the costs she incurs making up for it. She grows tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, crops that are actually doing well with the drier climate this year. But increased irrigation is needed to ensure the plants still thrive.

For some, irrigation requires a careful balancing act. Brad Dearing of Dearing Country Farms in Bloomington says he uses well water on his land, but since he also raises livestock, he can't rely upon that supply too much for his crop irrigation.

"We're working on a water catchment system as well to harvest the rainwater to use on our gardens and it's really put that up on our priority list," he said. "After this drought I just don't know what the rest of the summer is going to have in store for us."

Dearing said while the lack of rainfall poses its problems, there are some positive aspects, too.

"With the dryness too, I think that it's affected the pests. We haven't had as many weeds because of the dryness," he said. "So you know, when we do till or cultivate the weeds, they stay gone at this point. So it means looking at the glass half full or half empty."

Nicholas Walters uses a drip irrigation system on Golden Tassel Family Farms in Wapella. He said he's increased overhead irrigation in some areas, but he's also adapting his agricultural practices a bit to the current conditions.

"I'm also kind of allowing weed pressure to increase a bid to retain soil moisture and cultivating less. So it's just a sustainable way to keep moisture in the ground," Walters said.

Claire O'Rourke, who farms near Downs in McLean County, said the dry weather has an effect on several aspects of crop quality.

The sweet corn hasn't been growing as much. The strawberries this year are a lot smaller than they usually are. But they're a lot more, they're more tart. They're not as sweet," O'Rourke said.

Chris Dunn-Rankin said this is the first year he's had to irrigate regularly at his rural farm near Clinton. He installed a new drip irrigation system. He says the other choice was to spend hours watering crops himself with a hose. The unusual weather has already had an impact on his yields.

"We've had some crops that we usually get really early just not come up," he said. "Some of our early greens or lettuces, carrots had a real hard time. Others seem to be doing okay. But really it's kind of like rolling the dice."

Drake Parker of Middle Fork Farm in Normal said he's had a similar experience to Dunn-Rankin's.

"Greens got pretty much wiped out early on. The temperatures were just too high and too dry. They like cool spring weather, fall weather. And that was the main crop that probably had the biggest loss from just the heat," Parker said.

Kathy Troyer of Troyer Family Gardens in Hudson agrees with Parker's take that temperature is an issue this season. The warm weather early in the growing season made her optimistic, but then it got too hot. Now, both the heat and lack of moisture are playing into problems for her outlook.

"If you go between hot and dry you (can) end up with smaller tomatoes, end up with split tomatoes," Troyer said. "There's a lot of blossom end rot. There's a lot of things that can happen."

Dunn-Rankin, the farmer from Clinton, said wild temperature changes are leading to an odd growing season.

"The temperature swings are really strange. We had late frost, we had a heatwave and now we're back into this kind of like cooler summer temperatures," he said. "Some of our plants really love that that cool temperature and others are slow because of it. So it's just very unpredictable. It's hard to see what's gonna come next."

Richard Niester, owner and operator of Diamond's Homestead in Decatur, said he's having some strange luck this year. He has some zucchini already flowering, but it's only six inches tall. That's just one example.

"Some of the lettuces, they just don't want to take because we had just a lot of heat. And some of the seeds just didn't want to germinate. Some of the seeds just died as soon as they germinated because of the high heat that we've been having, and then all of a sudden it cools down," he said.

But Angela Thompson, the farmer from Athens, says a lot can still change over the next few months.

"We'll see how things play out as the summer goes on. It's a little early to tell if it's going to affect the outcome. But again, right now what it's affecting is the cost associated with doing it," Thompson said.

Ford, the state climatologist, said it'll take a few weeks of wetter than normal weather to completely wipe out drought, but even usual precipitation levels this month would go a long way.

Reporting was contributed by WGLT's Colin Hardman.

Contact Tim at tsshel1@ilstu.edu.
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