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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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.