Heavy rains hit Minnesota farmers hard over the last year, but local fruit and vegetable growers are looking to turn their fortunes around.
Producers from across the region were given a rare opportunity to meet with fellow farmers Feb. 11 when the University of Minnesota Extension Office and the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota held a farmer-to-farmer gathering in St. Peter to share insights on building a better harvest.
“I was excited to get together with fellow farmers, talk about how the past season went, how we’re going to move forward next season, what our successes and failures were and how we can build to make next year better,” said Bill Carda.
Carda is the co-owner of Under the Sun Herbs in Madelia and was one of around 30 farmers to attend the farmer-to-farmer gathering. Networking opportunities don’t come along often for local producers, but in partnership with the SFA, the U of M Extension Office debuted a pilot program to bring local farmers together. The event, hosted at the Nicollet County Health and Human Services Office in St. Peter, attracted growers from not just St. Peter and Mankato but all the way up to Northfield.
“Having a community and reconnecting with other farmers is helpful for all of us,” said Natalie Hoytle with the U of M Extension Office. Hoytle was one of the lead organizers of the event. “We’re just here to connect, learn from each other and talk about different issues that people have been having and try to learn from each other about the strategies people have been using and innovative solutions.“
Of particular concern at the gathering was the rainy seasons which had plagued farmers throughout 2019. Weeks of heavy precipitation and flooding in the Spring led more and more growers to plant their crops later in the year, which put their produce at risk of being killed by an early frost. Growers were bitten again by hefty showers in the fall, damaging what was already expected a lower than average yield.
One solution to Minnesota’s wet weather that’s gaining popularity around the state and among local growers is cover crops. These crops, which include species like rye, clover and vetch are seeing more use to improve water infiltration and prevent erosion.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity with cover crops,” said Dan Zimmerle, both a producer who works on Cedar Crate Farm, south of Kasota, and as an SFA associate. “They can help improve soil and soil water infiltration so the soil can store more water so when they have these big rain events, the water doesn’t just wash everything away, it seeps down into the deep soil. That’s an area of opportunity and probably an area that needs to be studied as well. So I think that’s something that a lot of people were interested in expanding on.”
Another much talked about solution was growing fruits and vegetables in raised beds.
“That really helps with water management and mitigation because raised beds give water an area to go and they dry out faster because they’re raised up,” said Zimmerle.
The whole event appeared to be a hit with the farmers who attended, including Carda.
“We learned a lot about cover crops and different regenerative and sustainable practices to control weeds and pests,” said Carda. “That was one of the biggest takeaways. I also got a lot of ideas on marketing and how we can sell our crops in the future based on what other people were doing.”
“I definitely got to meet a lot of new people, network and learn from others’ successes and failures.”