Drought dries up local fields and farms
By Erika Wurst email@example.com July 22, 2012 8:16PM
Susie Perez dumps another burlap bag of sweet corn onto a table at Suzanne's Farm Stand at Route 47 and Kennedy Road in Yorkville on Saturday, July 21, 2012. Because her uncle's farm in Pingree Grove is able to irrigate, her supply of corn has not been affected but the drought to date. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 24, 2012 6:04AM
On Thursday afternoon, dozens of Kendall County residents flowed in and out of Suzy Perez’s small vegetable stand near Kennedy Road and Route 47 in Yorkville. Moms and their kids came in for sweet corn; others stopped by for luscious, red tomatoes and giant green peppers.
“I’m very blessed,” Perez said as she rang up customers. “No one else has corn.”
For six years, Perez has been selling her veggies at Holdmen Farm, but this year’s drought means she’s had little competition. Rural roads usually overflowing with “fresh sweet corn” signs have few mom and pop stands.
“People who have been selling for a zillion years don’t have anything,” Perez said.
She wouldn’t either if it wasn’t for planes bringing water to her crops.
According to Dan Reedy, Kendall County Farm Bureau director, the drought of 2012 has been at least as devastating on farmers here as the drought of 1988, and could get worse.
“As the heat and sun keeps continuing, we’re working our way down very quickly,” he said.
Low yields, high prices
Spring was a blessing for Kendall County farmers. Warm temperatures allowed farmers to get to their fields faster. But, summer has been a curse — and Wednesday’s storm was little relief for dry fields.
“This last front that moved through brought some much needed relief, but it’s definitely just a start,” said Ryan Klassy, information director at the Kane County Farm Bureau. “It’s still too early to tell what the long term effects will be. Hopefully we’ll get through it.”
So far this summer, there have been 32 days where the temperature in Kendall was over 90 degrees, Reedy said. He said that during 1988’s drought, Kendall farmers averaged a yield of about 85 to 95 bushels of corn an acre. During a good year, yield will average twice that much. This isn’t one of those years, he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 78 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is within an area experiencing drought — including all of Illinois. However, while 1,297 counties nationwide have been declared nature disaster areas, no Fox Valley counties have made that list yet.
Luckily for corn growers, the produce is almost $8 a bushel at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange this week, compared to a usual price in a usual year of between $3 to $5 a bushel.
The higher price will make up for some of the lower yield, but the real problem is that many farmers have contracts to provide corn. If they cannot grow enough corn to meet those contracts, they have to buy them out at the higher price. Reedy said a spin-off effect will likely hit other areas of the economy, considering how much corn goes into food products, sweeteners and ethanol, he said.
The drought hasn’t been kind to Kane County green thumbs, either. Just ask Sang Pak, of Aurora, who was tending to his garden at the Oakhurst garden plots on Thursday, after Wednesday’s rain. Pak spends eight hours at work before he comes to his garden, where Asian plant, tomatoes and cucumbers struggle to grow.
“This year a lot of people are disappointed,” he said. “I expect them to grow so I can give to friends.”
With the drought scaring off even the most avid gardeners, business is slow at the Garden Faire, downtown Oswego’s organic gardening boutique, according to owner John Zidlicky.
“We still have people coming in but it’s dramatically slowed down,” said Zidlicky. “A lot of people are afraid to put anything in the ground — as they should be.”
But he said there are still plenty of drought-tolerant plants that are happy to soak up the sun and the heat. Ornamental grasses don’t wilt in the hot, sunny days. And native plants — like coneflowers and asters — are well adapted to Illinois’ unpredictable summers.
Zidlicky been counseling troubled growers to give plants a good soaking at the roots once or twice a week (rather than sprinkling every day), mulch, and to use watering bags at the base of trees that are still establishing strong root systems.
The good news, he said, is that plants are good at soaking up moisture anywhere they can get it.
“Even the humidity is helping,” he said. “Definitely if you’re a farmer you were happy looking at the storm (Wednesday) night, but how much of it got down to the subsoil, we don’t know. What we really need is a good two- or three-day soaker.”
Reporters Steve Lord, Jenette Sturges and Stephanie Lulay contributed to this story.