GREENFIELD — For most farmers, there’s nothing to do but wait and see the outcome of this year’s crops, undoubtedly damaged by record-setting heat and drought.
But some small producers still have a fighting chance to save their crops, and the spoils of victory are on display at the farmers market at the Hancock County Fairgrounds every Wednesday and Saturday morning.
It’s there that Joe Paxton continues to sell his sweet corn at the same price as last year even though this season’s crop has been harvested at a far greater cost in terms of time and money.
Paxton starts watering his sweet corn crop – about an acre and a half will be growing at any given time – when the sun’s all the way down, about 10 p.m.
“I start right at dark so the sun doesn’t evaporate it,” he explained.
For the next four hours Paxton waters the corn using a tanker truck he fills from a well and brings out to the field. To keep the crop going through the driest stretch on record, Paxton has done this every single night.
The result has been sweet corn, though it’s a smaller and lower- quality crop than he’s used to.
“(Watering) is not as good as rain, but it’s better than nothing,” Paxton said.
The half inch of rain recorded in the Greenfield area over the past two days means Paxton gets a night off. As soon as the ground gets dry again – in a day or two – he’ll be back at it.
Like Paxton, the other producers at this Wednesday’s farmers market have had higher input costs but have yet to raise prices.
Most vendors said that watering costs have about doubled and they’ve all lost some plants, but it’s the time that’s the real investment in this year’s produce.
Enos King tends a 2.5 acre vegetable garden in Wayne County. He said he has had a hard time keeping up with the demands of getting everything watered for five or six hours a day.
“Our (water) pump runs pretty much 24 hours a day right now,” he said.
King’s hard work showed Wednesday, as he had a plentiful crop of cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbages and other vegetables for sale.
Unlike large-scale corn and soybeans growers, small producers who sell directly to consumers have crop sizes that are more manageable to irrigate. They also get more produce and therefore money out of each acre, so the extra cost makes it worthwhile for most.
But even the most dedicated growers haven’t been able to save everything. Wednesday’s market was noticeably lacking in greens, broccoli, beans and sweet peppers, among other varieties.
“I was looking for green peppers for pepper steak,” said Diane Huff.
Huff saw just two small peppers that wouldn’t quite cut it, but said other than that she hasn’t noticed the drought having a big impact on the local market.
“We come out as much as we can,” she said. “Everything’s local.”
Peppers and beans have both struggled through this summer’s record-breaking heat. Extreme temperatures can cause the plants to drop blooms, resulting in little to no produce.
Jack Coe said he has already mowed down the beans he planted this year. Coe gave up on the plants after picking two long rows and getting next to nothing out of the work.
“There was nothing in ‘em,” Coe said. “I threw away more than I kept.”
Coe is the last vendor left from the original Hancock County farmers market that started in 1978. He’s been growing ever since and this is the worst year he has ever seen.
Some crops he normally grows haven’t even been planted yet.
“It’s too hot,” he said. “The last two crops I planted I had to hose down the ground before and after just to get them to sprout.”
Coe and other local produce growers may continue to see some relief into early next week.
A 40 percent chance of rain continues through tonight and more moderate temperatures, highs in the upper 80s and low 90s, are forecast through the weekend.
Earl Breon, observing program leader for the National Weather Service in Indianapolis, warned that any rain will continue to be scattered and spotty.
“Some places are going to get decent rainfall and some places are going to get missed,” Breon said. “It’s hard to pinpoint who’s going to see the rain.”
Breon said the rain that does come will not be enough to resaturate the ground, so though some growers may enjoy a temporary break from watering, they’ll likely need to mount battle stations again, hoses in hand, by next week.