Short Answer (in 4 letters!): Rain
Four or five generations ago, the “great lakes region” from upstate New York through Michigan and Minnesota was a major vegetable producing area. Orchards and vineyards and truck farms throughout the area provided a large percentage of the seasonal (including storage) fruits and vegetables consumed in cities from Minneapolis and Chicago to Boston.
Though I was not around in the 40’s and 50’s as the truck farms of this area gradually began to go out of business, their crops replaced in grocery stores by cheap west coast imports, 29 seasons of growing vegetables for a living (MA to PA and yes, CA) has now given me a deep, gut level sense of why this happened. It was not the harsh winters that consigned Minnesota’s fresh vegetable industry to the dustbin of history (though the short growing season did not help!). No, I’m convinced it was the rain.
Think about it: from (eastern) Washington state apples to Kern County (CA) carrots, the vast majority of the fruits and vegetables we eat in this country are grown in the desert. Why? Because rainfall during the season can be among the most destructive things a grower can face, spreading foliar disease, spoiling crops just before harvest, and generally making every single activity in the field slower, harder and yes, more expensive, than those same operations in an arid climate.
Over the past 4-5 seasons, Featherstone farm has been struggling mightily with foliar diseases which thrive in wet climates. From black rot in cauliflower and cabbage, to powdery mildew in vine crops, these diseases can often claim large percentages of yields for an entire season. Surplus moisture around the time of harvest can lead directly to cracking skins in tomatoes, turning a good crop just on the verge of harvest (read: all growing costs sunk) to junk, literally overnight. In 2010 and then again this year, otherwise healthy fields of onions (here at FF, tens of thousands of pounds of them…) went from “early dry down” (10 days from harvest) to mush, due entirely to hot, wet weather (and the pathogens that thrive in such conditions).
How can a small (even intermediate scale) vegetable farm afford to take hits like this? The answer is, we have to charge more for our tomatoes, cauliflower and onions, than those grown in the arid west. The cost of diesel fuel to get them here pales by comparison. California produce will always undersell the Minnesota grown equivalent, so long as the water in the central valley holds out, and petroleum stays, say, below $500 / barrel(!).
September 7th, 2016 Early, early morning, rain drumming on the roof.