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Conventional farmer Dave Fenn (left) buys strawberries from his neighbor, organic farmer Mike Peroni. Photo by Joshua McNichols.

Conventional farmer Dave Fenn (left) buys strawberries from his neighbor, organic farmer Mike Peroni. Photo by Joshua McNichols.


Late Spring Farmers Reap Different Crops From Cold, Wet Northwest Weather

Joshua McNichols

As hot summer weather approaches, the bad weather we experienced this spring may be the last thing from your mind. But the spring of 2011 was the coldest and wettest in two decades and for farmers in the Pacific Northwest, the consequences can last all year long. KUOW's Joshua McNichols looks at how two farmers have responded to the cold spring weather in different ways.


Farmer Dave Fenn owns the biggest farm in the Boistfort Valley, a narrow strip of agricultural prairie hidden in the hilly timberlands of Southwestern Washington.

Fenn: "This is where my grandparents came about a hundred years ago and my brother lives here now."

Fenn holds 700 acres, much of it planted with wheat. Despite the large size of his farm, he runs the whole operation with only three employees. He keeps things simple by only growing half a dozen crops. Heavy machinery, chemicals and contractors help keep his operation running smoothly. But this year, the cool spring weather has given Fenn something to worry about: a fungus called wheat rust.

Fenn: "There isn't a healthy leaf here. The leaves should all look like that. But instead they've all got this — dead spots in the leaves."

The fungus thrives in wet weather. This wet spring has led to an epidemic of wheat rust. That hurts Fenn because the fungus stunts the growth of his plants.

Fenn: "That seed when it matures will be shrunken, will be smaller, because the rust inhibits its ability to grow."

First, the fungus attacked only small patches of Fenn's wheat, leaving yellow crop circles in the middle of healthy fields. As the cool spring dragged on, the disease spread. He sprayed his crop with chemical fungicides, but the chemicals didn't seem to work. Now when Fenn looks out at his fields, he sees dirty yellow where there should be green.

At the other end of the valley, Mike Peroni runs the Boistfort Valley Farm. Peroni's farm looks like a postage stamp compared to Fenn's, less than one tenth the size. Yet Peroni's farm teems with farm workers.

Peroni: "Thanks, Miss Addie!"

They pull weeds, pack boxes for CSA subscribers and shuttle produce to the farmers markets.

Peroni: "All right, tomorrow at nine? Awesome, Justin. All right, see ya."

Peroni also had a bad spring. When it came time to plant, several of his fields were too wet to plow. He rearranged his planting schedule, shifting crops from one field to another, like one of those plastic puzzles where you have to slide tiles around to form a picture. But a few fields got away from him, and some things just didn't get planted in time. He showed me his corn field.

Peroni: "You know the old adage that 'knee high by the fourth of July?' Well this is what we're looking at here, there's little hope of that."

McNichols: "How high is it, for people who can't see what you're looking at?"

Peroni: "I could gild the lily and say six inches tall, but this corn's about four inches tall."

Farmer Peroni can afford failures like this because he grows so many different crops, over 150 varieties. Compare that to big farmer Fenn, who grows only about six. For every crop that suffers at Peroni's farm, another thrives. The cool spring may have stunted his corn, but his kohlrabi looks fantastic.

That throws small farmers like Peroni into full marketing mode. You want cantaloupe? Well, it's a little cool for that, but why not try radishes instead? In his small farm office, Peroni puts the final touches on a recipe designed to get a customer's mouth watering.

Peroni: "You can take a lot of these early spring radishes and kohlrabi."

He calls his recipe "Salted Crispy Sharp Things."

Peroni: "And slice it really thin and use a really good quality, like a fleur de sel finishing salt, and mix them up in a bowl and serve them on the side."

Peroni posts the recipe on his blog, on Facebook and Twitter to build demand for his product. But no amount of social networking will help big farmer Fenn. When he goes online, it's not to write recipes, it's to check the price of wheat, a global commodity.

Fenn: "Today the price went up between 5 and 9 cents a bushel."

Like a stockbroker, Fenn's profits depend on choosing the right time to sell. A drought in Australia has pushed global wheat prices quite high. But the cool spring weather here has made it impossible for Fenn to predict how much wheat he can sell in advance. This is called pre–selling, a common practice in big farming. But the wheat rust is a big liability. Will it ease up or destroy his whole crop? If Fenn promises more wheat than he can deliver, he'd have to buy wheat on the open market to make up the difference. That could prove costly.

Fenn: "You can't beat yourself up too much or you just go crazy. You just kind of go 'ach!' and go on about your business."

It's unclear who will come out ahead this year — big farmer Fenn, a model of agricultural efficiency, or little farmer Peroni, with his patchwork farm and marketing savvy. They'll know more in late fall, when their summer crops have all been sold. The weather is warmer now. They just hope it stays that way.

I'm Joshua McNichols for KUOW.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW