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Southeast Wisconsin Farmers Experiencing Intense Drought

Dave Kozlowski
Pinehold Gardens
Farmers in southeast Wisconsin are struggling as a drought continues to plague the region. Dave Kozlowski's onion crop is a third of what is normally planted and keeping it hydrated is a challenge.

In a normal year from the beginning of March to mid-June, southeast Wisconsin would expect to see around 15 inches of precipitation. So far in 2021, counties across the region have only seen around half of that number. The U.S. Drought Monitor currently has labeled most of southeast Wisconsin as moderate to severe drought with areas near Kenosha marked as an extreme drought.

Droughts this intense poses difficult problems for farmers, especially produce farmers who have to rely more heavily on groundwater supply to grow fruits and vegetables. Lake Effect farming contributor Dave Kozlowski of Pinehold Gardens in Oak Creek says the effects of the drought will be noticed by consumers.

“All the vegetables we eat have a high percentage of water in them and fruits, so if that water is not in the ground, it’s not going to be in the fruits. Now, that will principally affect size and to some extent quality but it will also have an enhancing effect, it could raise the sugar levels,” he says.

So while fruit may be smaller, it will be sweeter. Kozlowski says other positive effects of the drought are that worries about disease amongst plants decreases and because all plants are affected by the drought, weeding becomes less of an issue.

“This year, because it’s so dry, the weeds are stressed as well, and so they’re not growing nearly as quickly or germinating nearly as quickly, so I can pretty much keep up with things,” he says.

This field at Pinehold Gardens would normally have been cover crop, but dry conditions prevented the seed from growing and the straw covering the back field from decomposing.
Dave Kozlowski/Pinehold Gardens
This field at Pinehold Gardens would normally have been cover crop, but dry conditions prevented the seed from growing and the straw covering the back field from decomposing.

Despite the few positives of the drought, Kozlowski says droughts are always a negative and end up hurting farmers. He says he has had to start watering his plants through irrigation and if rain doesn’t come soon, he says that irrigation will have to be happening around the clock every single day. That’s not something he’s had to do since the drought in 2012. Because of how early this drought started, he says it could end up being worse than past droughts.

Kozlowski says according to scientists, climate change could mean drier summers in the Midwest and create a more Mediterranean climate. If this pattern becomes the norm, he says farmers would have to completely rethink how they work across Wisconsin.

“If the summers become dry like California’s now that is going to change the nature of agriculture, certainly in the upper Midwest, just as it’s changing the nature of agriculture out west,” he says.

Kozlowski doesn’t expect for this summer to turn around and says it would take an inch to an inch and a half of rain per week until August to start heading in the right direction for crops — something he and others are not expecting.

“We need to get rain now, I’ve seen forecasts, there’s some chances of rain coming but nothing that looks like the amount that we have to make up,” he says.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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