Drought Forces Iowa Food Producers to Shift Crops and Techniques: Lower rainfall totals create a new reality for local farmers

Iowa is currently experiencing what the U.S. Drought Monitor reports as the worst precipitation conditions in a decade. As of November 2, almost every county was facing some degree of drought, ranging from Abnormally Dry to Extreme Drought.

That’s leading to a shift in the local goods consumers find on grocery store shelves.

“This year, there was very little produce early on,” said Lisa Bean, President of Cultivate Local Food Connections and Board Member at Iowa Food Cooperative.

As drought has worsened, local, independent producers like John Whitson of Sunrise Farms, Inc. have focused more heavily on root crops and fast-maturing crops, which are more water-efficient than taller plants with lots of foliage. In Whitson’s case, that means more garlic and fewer peppers and tomatoes.

But it’s not only the crops themselves that are changing – farmers are also tweaking their techniques.

Sue Ruden of Red Barn Produce, in Dexter, has developed best practices that she applies every year, drought or not.

“I will do less tilling to preserve the moisture in the soil,” she said. She uses mulch as well.

She waters with drip tape irrigation, a low-pressure, low-flow watering method that employs a pipeline with evenly spaced emitters built inside the tubing. Also, she sometimes harvests an entire row of a crop like beets, so she can stop watering the harvested row and conserve water.

At Lee’s Greens, owner Lee Matteson combines greenhouses and drip irrigation for better yields on select crops like tomatoes and cucumbers.

“Since [the crop] is inside, it has to be irrigated no matter if it rains outside or not,” he said. There’s also less disease risk.

For crops outside, he uses drip irrigation across the board, beginning at the transplant stage, leading to better results. He said the drip method works best because it gets water to the base of the plant in a narrow band, simultaneously reducing weed growth throughout the field.

Farmers who don’t sell produce are managing drought, too.

“Less rain during the growing season always means less yield in the field,” said LaVon Griffieon of Ankeny-based Griffieon Family Farm. The farm primarily sells meat but grows non-GMO corn to feed poultry, hogs, and cattle and direct-markets its chicken feed. Drought reduces available feed as well as pasture for livestock to graze.

When there is rain, it’s often more severe and more intense over shorter durations, sometimes flooding and killing crops. Between increased irrigation and unpredictable rain events, small-scale farming could become less viable.

Matteson said, “I can handle drought, but I can’t overcome crop losses on a large scale.”