Drought worsens across southern Minnesota

·5 min read

Jun. 24—MANKATO — A worsening drought across southern Minnesota has become a big problem for growers, shortening the season for early cool-weather crops and requiring growers to ramp up irrigation — if they have it.

"Even my creeping Charlie is dying. That's really bad," said Diane Dunham, head of the Mankato Farmers Market, whose produce farm is near Lake Emily.

Thursday's U.S. Drought Monitor report, with data compiled through Tuesday morning, shows things have worsened significantly across much of Minnesota.

The area of moderate drought or worse has grown from 56% of the state to 75%, including all across southern Minnesota

Severe drought areas have also increased over the past week, running along the southern border of Minnesota and reaching up into Blue Earth County.

The forecast holds little promise for any dramatic reversal of drought conditions.

The heat should break on Friday with weekend highs in the low to mid-80s. There are chances for a few showers or isolated storms Friday and through the weekend in southern Minnesota.

Produce, orchards stressed

Dunham said all of the growers at the Farmers Market are facing stresses, as are their crops.

"A lot of the growers, especially the new growers, aren't set up for any kind of irrigation system. Some of our growers have irrigations systems or portable tanks."

She said smaller growers can mulch their crops, which can reduce evaporation by up to 90%. "But if you have acres of land that's not feasible."

"Most crops really need an inch or two (of rain) a week to thrive and they're not getting anything. There's still time, but if this continues through July we're gong to be in trouble."

Tim Gulden, of Gulden Family Farm near New Ulm, is the largest grower for the Farmers Market, operating 25 acres. They have 50 different crops and 150 varieties.

"I keep watching the forecast change. Every time there's hope for rain the hope disappears."

Gulden said plants with deeper roots, such as sweet corn, are still doing OK on heavier soil. "But crops on sandy ground or younger plants are struggling."

He has some irrigation, but it's labor intensive. He hauls 1,000 gallon tanks of water on hay racks and hooks them to spray gun sprinklers that move through an area.

"I can do a half acre in 8 hours to give it enough moisture for a week. It's not fun, but it keeps them alive. That will be occupying my time sunup to sundown."

Gulden had a good crop of peas from his early plantings, but the later plantings died in the hot soil.

"If people want peas they better get them in the next few weeks."

He said other cool weather, early crops such as radishes and lettuce bolted or burned from the early heat.

The mid-summer like weather of the past two months will means some crops will be maturing earlier than usual. "Sweet corn loves heat. Mine are tasseling already. I could have corn in a few weeks."

But other things also grew well. "Some of those pesky weeds came up early and thrived in that early heat. They're here in full force," Gulden said.

Dunham said that while plants such as tomatoes, peppers and corn thrive in heat, they also need a lot of water, especially when they start flowering and fruiting, which is usually in mid July.

"A tomato plant uses close to two inches a week when they're flowering and fruiting"

She said the challenging growing season comes as the market is doing very well. "Most vendors had a record year last year and it's starting that way this year. So we need the crop to come in. We're hoping things will improve with the weather."

Tim Harbo of Welsh Heritage Farm said that while orchards are also feeling the stress, he's in better shape than many.

"The big thing for us is a lot of our newer, younger trees are irrigated so we're able to weather this fairly well. Our older growth trees have deeper roots that are still able to get down to some water, even through they're stressed."

Harbo, too, is frustrated that chances for rain never turn into actual rains. "Every time it seems there's a chance of rain, the next day it's gone."

Rivers run low

Many area rivers are already at levels that are among the lowest on record.

Bent River Outfitters often leads kayak and canoe outings from the Rapidan dam down the Blue Earth River, but levels are now too low.

"We measure at the Rapidan Dam and allow our kayaks on the river if the level is 2.25 feet. If it drops below that you have to get out of the kayaks and you ruin them," said Joe Richter.

He checked the level on the DNR website Thursday morning and found it at 1.96 feet at the dam. "That's the lowest we've seen in a long time."

Even the Minnesota River has fallen dramatically, particularly for this early in the summer. While sand bars were a rare sight in recent years, they abound this year.

Bent River often takes groups on a short trip from Land of Memories Park to Riverfront Park in Mankato and Richter said more rocks are visible just under the water.

The Le Sueur River, which runs under the Red Jacket Trail trestle, is extremely low, making paddling all but impossible.

"The only rivers in the state with even medium flow are up north," Richter said

Bent River didn't operate last summer because of the pandemic and in spite of the low levels has been ramping up new offerings this year.

"We're doing junior paddling classes, women-only paddling events, intro to paddling classes. There's been a lot of interest in them," Richter said.

Bent River is also working on a retail store for paddling, hiking and outdoor supplies that is to open this fall in Old Town.

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