When growing pickles, it’s not uncommon to have a grand slam in terms of yield in a field or two, and also an occasional strikeout.But as sweltering heat and no rain repeated itself day after day, it began to look pretty bleak for a large percentage of Michigan’s cucumber pickling crop.
Mike McCormack, who farms with his brother, John, in Ionia and Clinton counties, says his first crop of pickles, even his irrigated ones, took a yield hit — with non-irrigated production being off 40%.
McCormack normally plants about 600 acres of first-crop pickles in the spring and then double-crops an additional 100 acres. Planting started with about 20 acres a day on May 23, but was halted June 23 because of the drought.
According to Hal Hudson, a Michigan State University Extension horticulture educator out of Caro, there were even more challenges. “There’s been expressed concern with pollination in pickles — having enough honeybees to pollinate the crop. We’re seeing a great deal of variation [in crop health] depending on where rain occurred over the growing season in the Thumb.”
• Lack of bees in heat created concern for pollination.
• Growers ride out highs and lows of the season.
• Return of normal rain levels in mid-July helps second crop.
Charlie Bauer of LaRaCha Farms, in Saginaw, Bay and Tuscola counties, agrees. “The heat presented just as much pressure on the crop as dryness. Bees don’t’ work well in this heat.”
Bauer, who farms with his son, two brothers and their two sons, remembers all too well the 2001 drought that claimed a third of his pickle crop. The scattered rains in the Thumb area allowed Bauer to plant his entire crop, finishing up July 25. “But yield has been all over,” he says of the 1,700 acres of pickles in the ground.
Not all his ground is irrigated, and one sweet spot, just northeast of Reese, picked up decent rains and corresponding yields.
However, that wasn’t the norm. His first irrigated field did manage a historical average. But the second field produced about 66% of average, and the third and fourth planting were about 40% to 45% of normal production.
Downey mildew has also surfaced in Tuscola County, as well as Berrien County.“We did some double-crop of irrigated fields, and normally we do not on nonirrigated, but this year, we have 130 acres being re-planted.”
The back-to-back days of 100-degree temps created nervousness, as many farmers literally watched their crops shrivel, as well as the potential for profit. “I had one of the most depressing days spraying pickles as I watched them wither up,” Bauer says. “But it rained that night, and you would not even know it was same field the next day. We’ve had issues here, but we are so much better off than the rest of the country. That’s farming. You run into these issues, but we really need more risk management tools.”
Bauer and McCormack farm sugarbeets, as well. McCormack calls pickles the offensive and sugarbeets the defensive crop. “If you take care of sugarbeets, they will take care of you,” he says. “But with both crops, you’re running in the dirt, and that means you could have the best day of your career or the worst.”
In total, the Bauers had 45 different planting dates for pickles and a range of quality and yield.Normal, and even abundant rains, returned to much of Michigan in mid-July.
McCormack resumed planting a second crop July 21 and finished July 31 for a total of 640 acres for the year. “We have the potential for a full, 100% crop,” he says, as the last of the first planting was coming off Aug. 13. “We are a little concerned about a potential frost with a late-September harvest, but our late crop looks excellent.”
The diversity on the Bauer and McCormack farms has helped them manage risk, even when no crop insurance is offered.
Adrienne McTaggart, USDA Risk Management Administration specialist, confirmed Michigan has nothing to offer cucumber growers other than NAP, the Noninsured Assistance Program.
“You never want to qualify for NAP,” says Ken Nye, horticulture specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau, citing extremely low indemnification in extreme losses.
“Cucumbers are not an insurable crop in any county right now, but at one time there was a pilot program about seven or eight years ago,” Nye adds. “It only operated a couple of years in Michigan and Texas, and the loss ratio was so bad in Texas, they couldn’t afford to continue it. It may not have been designed properly.”
Committed to pickles
Pickles are an extremely high-risk crop, requiring intensive spray management and substantial capital investment. “For the last two years, we’ve made more money in corn and soybeans, but we have relationships with people we sell to. They need to have pickles to sell to their customers, and we don’t jump from one crop to another,” Bauer explains.
McCormack echoed those words, saying, “We’ve actually increased our pickle acreage as equipment has gotten better. We ride the highs and the lows, and hope the market will pay enough to offset the risks.”
Unfortunately, the pickle market in the last few years has struggled to keep pace with other crops. “If we get our average, we’ll be OK,” Bauer says. “It’s not the slam dunk that everybody thought early on. But chances are, at some point, pickles will be a bright spot when nothing else is.”