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Counting Your Cantaloupes

Amid volatile climate patterns, conversation at markets like the Mohawk Valley Produce Auction reveals the plight of regional farmers

by Amy Halloran on August 23, 2012

A bearded man in a straw hat, dark pants and suspenders drives his horses under the roof, but no one looks at him, or the boxes of produce on his wagon, yet. All eyes are on the trailer to the left, where another man in another straw hat is auctioning off enough produce to kit out a small grocery store. The cantaloupes go in two lots of 90 melons each. Thirty-five baby watermelons go next, then a dozen half-bushel boxes of big, green bell peppers, and 10 boxes of tomatoes, both Romas and slicers, some first-quality, some seconds.

This is the Mohawk Valley Produce Auction in Fort Plain. Growers and buyers come here each Tuesday and Friday during the growing season. Talking to them about the weather opens an interesting window on this hot, dry summer.

“First I thought I’m going to have small cantaloupes,” says an Amish farmer with a red-blond beard who won’t give his name. He grows two acres of vegetables in Little Falls. “The rains came, and now I have big cantaloupes. Pumpkins are the same.”

Amos Lapp of Lapp’s Produce also farms near Little Falls and sells at farmers markets in Utica, Little Falls, Herkimer and Cooperstown, in addition to this auction. The creek he uses for irrigation was as low in July as it usually is in the end of September, so he thought about getting another well drilled. He had a well driller come out to his farm, but before he could decide to drill, the rains came. The creek’s back up to a good level now.

Lapp, like other growers at the auction, sees farmers around him suffering. Hay is short, but it’s growing again. Not everyone has access to water for irrigation.

“I guess if I couldn’t irrigate, I’d be having big problems,” says John King, standing near a horse-drawn wagon full of cucumbers, peppers and cantaloupes. The drought, he said, created a lot of problems. The lack of rain was a major challenge not just because of the water shortage, but because this lack made plants take up more calcium from the soil, which then needed replacing. At least the rains came in time to grow silage for cows, he says. If the drought had continued for another month it would have been a whole other story.

This sentiment might just be farmers’ optimism, because other people see that story playing out around New York state. David Balbian is dairy management specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Central New York. He’s working to help farmers stretch their feed supply through the winter.

“Some people say the damage has already been done,” Balbian says of the crops. “Some producers have enough inventory of feed on hand, but other people suffered a lot from [last year’s Tropical Storm] Lee, and were counting on a good crop to rebuild their inventories.”

While the corn looks a lot better now that the dry weather broke a few weeks ago, how the crop looks at harvest is still unknown. For the most part, Balbian says, production is going to be down.

Sweet corn has been hit by the dry summer, too.

“We were afraid we weren’t going to get any good sweet corn,” says Chris Currow, general manager of Mohawk Harvest Coop in Gloversville. He buys $60,000 in local produce for the food coop each year, coming to this auction twice a week, as well as buying directly from farmers.

Just that morning he’d been on a farm where the first set of raspberries were dry and shriveled. The rains set out enough recent growth to get a decent crop of good plump berries.

“Crops have been smaller and farmers have had to work harder for them,” he says.

“There’s less produce and the produce is drier,” notes Michele Harring, who serves on the coop’s board. She came to the auction with a second car to cart Currow’s selections back to the store. “Beans are a little stringier, and the corn doesn’t squirt as much when you bite into it.”

At the store, Currow observes people dithering about the price of vegetables. People won’t think twice about a five-dollar latte, he says, but an extra nickel a pound for zucchini can make the difference in a sale.

“Consumers can walk away and say that’s too high, and even I can walk away as a buyer,” he says. “But the farmer can’t walk away from the land.”

This makes this year tough and next year harder. Profit margins in farming are small in a good year, he says, and farmers still have to buy seed and inputs the following season.

First-year farmer Leah Wilson isn’t discouraged, but she is seeing low yields.

“We would have had 3,000 pounds of apples,” she says, Macintosh and Cortlands from old trees, but the early spring/late frost destroyed the crop. Her situation reflects the tough times orchardists are facing this year; a USDA crop forecast issued Aug. 10 shows state production down 54 percent over the five-year average.

Wilson and her partner at Bull Moose Farm have the ability to grow produce, and they are, but they’re working harder.

“We have a lot of underground water,” Wilson says, “so it hasn’t affected us as much as other farmers”—like her neighbor, who had no water, and lost everything.

Despite the demands of the weather, however, auctioneer Benuel Fisher says he hasn’t seen fewer growers. This is the fourth year the Mohawk Valley Produce Auction has been in operation, built to serve Amish who had come from Lancaster, Penn., to settle abandoned farmland, mostly dairies.

“We’ve seen an increase in buyers,” Fisher says. “We could sell 10 times more than we do.”

For now, the market will bear more than the land can produce.