Spring 2020 Logan County
Farm Outlook Magazine

Illinois specialty crops in the 2019 season
By Derek Hurley

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[March 30, 2020]  Specialty crops can be defined as acreage set aside from standard grain crops that pull more income. Locally, that can mean seed crops, organic crops, or vegetables for restaurants and institutions, or retail sales. Growing specialty crops helps to diversify business opportunities, such as farmers markets, roadside stands, and you-pick orchards.

There are drawbacks to producing a specialty crop. These drawbacks include the need for specialized equipment, handling and storage, finding or attracting buyers, weather hazards, poor markets, and pests.

As we look ahead to a new growing season, here is a look at some of the specialty crops grown in the state, and how they held up last year. Hopefully, we can learn from last season and prepare better for the future.

According to a report by Samantha McDaniel-Ogletree in the Herald & Review, farmers of specialty crops had a difficult time getting enough of their crops ready for farmers’ markets. Wet weather early in the planting season had a visible impact on specialty-crop farmers in 2019.

“It was really difficult to get things planted on time this year,” says Dave Gregory, a Lynnville farmer, in the report. “We had a real small window where the ground was dry enough. If it was barely dry, we had to put it in hard.”

The rain was “great for [his] onion and apple yields,” but the water also compacted the soil, causing some plants not to grow as they should.

Gregory’s success with his varied produce, “from onions, sweet corn, peppers, egg plants, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower,” partially depended on the location of the crops when he planted them last year. Some areas were dryer than others, which determined optimal planting locations.

Molly Gleason, communications director for Illinois Stewardship Alliance, says “the weather has had as much adverse effect on specialty crop farmers as it has commodity crop farmers…unlike commodity farmers, those that focus on specialty crops often feel the impact of bad season more because there are fewer programs that provide aid to farmers in the event of bad weather or prevented planting.”

Specialty crop farmers sometimes plant a variety of crops for this reason- to provide some financial protection if one fails. However, because of the wide variety of crops, it can be difficult to qualify for any kind of crop insurance, making a bad season worse.

One of the more popular agricultural features to see in the state is apple orchards, and a common fall activity is a family visit to an orchard for freshly-picked apples and related foods. Last year, orchards dealt with a few setbacks, mainly due to an unusually-brutally cold winter in 2018, dangerous flooding in the spring, and relatively dry weather in the summer.

As a result of those climatological factors, some orchards saw a smaller crop in the fall. Some apples were weeks behind schedule, resulting orchards pushing back opening day.

According to a news report by Andrea Flores in East Moline, apple orchard owner Vince Bull says "It was a tough call, and [we were] losing money every week to keep it closed, but our main objective is to make a top quality product for people to come and enjoy."

Flores writes that the orchard saw a forty percent smaller crop than usual. But that wasn’t just because of the weather. Deer have a habit of feeding in orchards, making a small crop situation worse. Due to these problems, the orchard had to restrict business by a few weeks. The retail shop was open through Thanksgiving. But some orchards had to restrict business even further, or close for the year.

Apple orchards in McHenry and Lake Counties also delayed opening, and at least one orchard shut down for good. Lang's Orchard, also in Woodstock, did not open in the fall, but not for good. The reason behind the closure, according to a Patch report by Amie Schaenzer, is due to smaller batches of high quality apples.

Schaenzer’s report suggests that last winter's extreme cold, as well as the longevity of said weather that continued into April and May, caused a lot of problems for Lang’s crop. Their website currently states that they hope 2020 will be a better year for their crops and Mother Nature will allow them to open again.

But not all of the orchards can hope for such luck. The More Than Delicious Orchard, also in Woodstock, is closing permanently. As was the case with Lang's Orchard, the weather of the previous winter and spring damaged the orchard's crop. According to Schaenzer’s report, “more than fifty trees died.”

Apples are not the only fruit grown in Illinois. Peaches are also a common fruit grown in the state. As was the case with apples, peach farmers had a difficult time in 2019.

According to a report by Scott Cousins of the Peoria Journal Star, peach growers described mixed results on 2019’s peach crops. Cousins writes that harvests were hit hard by frigid weather in January, hail in the following months, and constant flooding that came after.

According to Cousins, “most of the state’s peach farmers are south of Interstate 70…The exception is Jersey, Macoupin and Calhoun Counties.”

Peach farmers often struggle with cold temperatures, which are dangerous to trees and new buds alike. Last year, both the Hagen Family Orchard and Wiegel’s Orchard in Golden Eagle had no peaches to sell because of hail in June. Odelehr’s Market in Brussels had peaches from one of its two orchards, but the other was hit too hard from both hail and icy weather.

Animals are also a problem for peach farmers in the state, just like with apples. Animals frequently go after peaches in the middle of the night. “Raccoons are a problem with any fruit crop,” agricultural educator Elizabeth Wahle says in the report. “Squirrels are also a big problem. They can do quite a bit of damage.”

Heavy flooding throughout the year also impacted peach farmers. Some orchards stayed above the floodwaters, but some other storage sites were not.

“I lost my fruit market,” says local grower Tom Ringhausen in the report. “It sits at the end of the [Joe Page] bridge.”

Another common specialty crop grown throughout the state is pumpkins. According to a report by Rhiannon Branch of Brownfield News, towards the end of the 2019 season, “overall, the Illinois pumpkin crop looks good this year despite a late start.”

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Branch writes that pumpkin farmers expected a relatively poor crop due to a wet spring, but samples harvested for processing ended with more flesh than water because of a dryer summer. As a result, pumpkins harvested were of a higher quality than expected.

“It was better than expected from the beginning. Adding to that, we usually have at least a couple of somewhat devastating diseases, but this one year of them never reached Illinois and another one we were able to control,” says Mohammad Babadoost with the University of Illinois. He says Halloween pumpkins did not do as well, but even those harvests were still better than expected.

Some farmers branched out into a new specialty crop last year: hemp. The year 2019 was the first for legal hemp production in the state, and a report by Dana Cronin of Illinois Newsroom shares some of those experiences.

Many farmers experienced frustration with growing a new crop. “It’s kind of a good way to start, in that that’s about as bad as it can get,” says Jeff Cox, Bureau Chief of Medicinal Plants at the Illinois Department of Agriculture. “There’s a lack of expertise, just a general lack of knowledge as to how to grow hemp the best way.”

Cronin writes that a lot of hemp farmers soon learned that after they harvested their crop, they had nowhere to take it. “I have 5,000 pounds of biomass sitting in my garage, taking up a whole stall of the two-stall garage,” says Charles Brown, a hemp grower in Virginia, Illinois.

Another problem came in the form of licensing. Cronin cites the Illinois Department of Agriculture, who says that 644 growers licenses were issued in 2019, but fewer than 200 processors were licensed.

Additionally, a generational divide has caused some friction with hemp crops. Older farmers associate hemp with marijuana in a negative manner, and believe it is just as harmful. Younger farmers are more likely to at least try and grow the crop, despite the difficulties. Even with these troubles, many hemp farmers are ready to try again this year and learning from this past experience.

In order to help these farms, such as the apple orchards, the peach farms, the pumpkin patches, and the hemp farmers (and all the others), specialty crops are being added to lists of various supporting programs. One of these programs comes from digital-agriculture company Farmers Edge, who has begun offering its imagery and mapping technology for specialty crops.

According to a news release, “the FarmCommand technology integrates four imagery-derived map layers (NDVI, Scouting, Variation, and Health Change Maps), cloud filtering technology, and field-centric weather for growers to accurately identify, predict, and respond to issues before yield is impacted.”

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Scott Hutchins released information in October of 2019 that the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) invested $11 million in research that will support specialty crop farmers.

As part of the initial investment, four universities across different U.S. growing regions have been leading regional IR-4 programs to generate additional data on minor crops in the United States. The final results of the studies are still pending.












Read all the articles in our new
2020 Spring Farm Outlook Magazine

Introduction Farm Outlook spring 2020 4
Local banker Dave Irwin observes a decade of change 7
Farming is one of the highest tech industries in the world! 13
Trump Bucks, Trade Deals and what may be ahead 18
Illinois specialty crops in the 2019 season 21
WOMEN IN AG:  An interview with Skye Kretzinger 28
WOMEN IN AG:  Passion leads this young trio at Central Illinois Ag 32
WOMEN IN AG:  Women in farming 37
Johns and Susan Adams from Atlanta selected as 2020 Master Farmers 40
NWS:  No repeat oif last year's disastrous weather in the 2020 long-range forecast 43
Logan County 2019 soybean estimate gets a 'no report' 45
2019 corn and soybean yields 48


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