Steady Rains Take Toll on Local Farms

After years of struggling with drought, area farmers now face too much rain

"The last two summers were droughts and we lost everything," says Adam Colvin, of Colvin Family Farms, near Spring City, Tenn. "I think this amount of rain has made the season a loss for us, but not completely. Thankfully, we have a lot of raised beds."

Colvin and his father and brother grow 40 different kinds of vegetables, and sell them at the Market Square Farmer's Market in Knoxville, among many other places, including restaurants and grocery stores. It's Monday, Oct. 12, and Colvin is watching it rain yet again on his fields. According to the National Weather Service in Morristown, East Tennessee rainfall in 2009 is more than 25 percent above normal—47.81 inches compared to 38.1 on the 12th.

"For us, too much rain is better than not enough," says Colvin. "But it has pretty much killed our broccoli. Being up here on the mountain, there are some spots where you just have 20 inches of topsoil above the bedrock. So a big rain is going to float anything away. There are certain crops that you have to plant at a certain time and broccoli is one of them. We planted in July and didn't harvest any. I've talked to a lot of other people who have had broccoli rot."

According to meteorologists, this year's extra rain does provide some protection against drought into early next year. Soil moisture diminishes over time, but can sustain plants in the absence of rainfall. And underground water is accessible by wells, obviously. So slow, steady rains that soak the ground and allow moisture to make it to underground aquifers are much preferable to downpours, where the water moves quickly above ground to streams and rivers and is carried away.

But it's hard to take heart in the long view when you're watching your broccoli—whether you're growing it for your own table or your paying neighbors'—float away. University of Tennessee/Tennessee State University Knox County Extension Agent Emily Gonzalez says the Colvin family's predicament is widespread.

"We've been having a lot of issues in gardens and around homes," says Gonzalez. "We've seen a lot of disease issues in gardens and a lot of insect issues. People have been finding grubworms in their basements and on their driveways. We've had growers with problems. In early summer, strawberries were rotting in the fields. Some growers had plans to replant and grow strawberries all summer, but that wasn't possible.

"It's so humid here, we always battle fungus. That's dealt with by fungicide. But nobody was prepared for this. Right now we've got cucurbits (squash and pumpkins) mildewing in the field."

Charlotte Tolley, director of the Market Square Farmers Market in Knoxville, says that even though the market has twice as many Saturday sellers in 2009 as it did in 2008, the amount of produce that makes it to market has not increased nearly as much.

"While we have some amazing die-hard customers that will come out rain or shine, a full day of rain like on Sept. 26 hurts our market," says Tolley. "Our vendors don't move the amount of product they need to and quite a few vendors won't come to the market at all, especially our prepared food and craft vendors.

"This affects the market as a whole because we rely on booth fees to pay for our promotions, staff and security. The weather has decreased the amount of tomatoes we usually have, and many of our growers have had a hard time with winter squash due to rot. Also, the muddy fields and days of rain make planting difficult. We have almost twice the number of growers at our Saturday market this year, but only about one and a half times the product we usually have."

The rain also affected the local tomato supply for Three Rivers Market, according to John Bohnenstiel, Produce Manager.

"The rain has been an issue this year, after two years of drought," says Bohnenstiel. "During tomato season a lot of our growers were losing fruit to diseases, like blossom end rot. The rain makes it hard to work in the fields. It's hard to harvest potatoes if you're working in mud. The same thing's true for people who replant their crops over the course of the summer; rain makes that a challenge.

"It has not affected prices here. We work hard to deal with that upfront. Nobody has raised prices specifically for that reason."

One often hears trumpeted the advantages of buying produce grown close to home; from growers who have to answer for its price and quality. The manner in which Three Rivers Market and growers who sell at Market Square have dealt with a reduced harvest lends credence to the argument.

"The Market Square Farmer's Market has been wonderful for us," says Colvin. "The growers will get together and talk about what things are selling for at the grocery and will pretty much sell things for about the same price. We're selling a quarter-pound of arugula for $3.50. We wouldn't undercut the other growers there, and they do the same. If somebody has an overload of something, that's different. They can mark it down and people will understand."

Emily Gonzalez' office welcome queries from farmers, gardeners and homeowners seeking advice in dealing with the extra rain: 215-2340.

Corrected: Colvin Family Farm is located in Spring City, Tenn.