Laughing Loon Farms: The effects of weather on a first-year farm

Northfield's Laughing Loon Farms underwater
Northfield's Laughing Loon Farms underwater

See Also: Waxwing Farm: Young urbanites-turned-farmers reveal the reality of owning a farm

A lot of time and attention is being spent on local farmers these days. In certain circles they're talked about in the same light as celebrity chefs. It's easy to get caught up in the initial glamour of farmer's life. We use those words with a healthy dash of irony, because we know that the life of a farmer comes with little glamour. Early mornings, hard labor, and dealing with the forces of nature are all just a part of a day's work. For many young people who are seeking a return to the rural lifestyle, it's a rewarding way to reconnect with the land and to do something good for their local communities. 

As consumers, we often tend to overlook the hardships these farmers can face and what they can mean to someone just starting out. To say that being a farmer is a labor of love would be an understatement. With all of the turbulent weather we've had over the past few months, many young farmers are struggling to keep afloat while their crops are literally being washed and then burned away. Laughing Loon Farms is part of the SEEDS Farm Project, which is a larger incubator farm in Northfield, Minnesota, that helps young farmers get started. Recently we contacted Dayna Burtness of Laughing Loon Farms to find out how she's been dealing with the elements.

How long have you been farming? 

This is my seventh year in the food and farming world, my sixth season of farming and my first season of farming on my own. 

What was it that made you decide to get into farming? 

A fantastic eye-opening internship at Foxtail Farm CSA, an organic farm in Osceola, Wisconsin, back in 2005. I loved everything about farming so much--the hard work, the lack of bullshit, the yummy food, the supportive community--that when I returned to St. Olaf College for my sophomore year I co-founded STOGROW Farm, the student-run organic farm on campus. Laughing Loon Farm is the dream I've had ever since then. 

Approximately how much rain has your farm received this year? 

Laughing Loon Farms: The effects of weather on a first-year farm
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This May was one of the wettest on record, but the real doozy was when we got over eight inches of rain in several hours on June 14. The flooding washed away a third of the farm, and then the golf-ball-sized hail that we got a couple nights later severely damaged the rest of the crops that had survived the flood.

Has this impacted your yields? 

Tremendously. We lost at least $15,000 of crops in the flood and another $15K+ in the hailstorm. It was heartbreaking.

How will this impact the rest of your growing season? 

Right now we're focusing on trying to salvage what we can and then replant as much as possible, but it means we'll have fewer crops, and they'll be ready to harvest quite a bit later in the season. I've made peace with the fact that I'm not going to make a living this season, but I'm happy that I'll be able to keep two of my interns employed. 

How is this going to impact your customers? Restaurants? CSAs?  

Laughing Loon sells to many restaurants and cafes in Northfield and the Twin Cities, like the Bachelor Farmer, Common Roots, the Craftsman, and the Minnesota Valley Country Club. They've all been incredibly supportive and kind. My friends at Bachelor Farmer were running a special salad and donating the proceeds to the recovery fund. They will all be fine because they all have extensive networks of local farms as well as distributors, but I will certainly miss seeing my chef friends once or twice a week while we get the farm back on track as much as possible.

Now that we've entered into the month of July, we've been greeted by some excessive heat. How has that effected things on the farm?

The heat wave right after the flood and hailstorms certainly made the cleanup effort a little harder, but it also took a toll on our crops and soil. We lost our entire crop of broccoli and cauliflower to something called brown bead, which happens after too much heat follows too much water. And since the hail punctured over four miles of drip tape that we use for irrigation, we were racing against the clock to purchase replacement materials and get our system back up and running. I'm so thankful for all the donations we've received thus far from almost 100 individuals and businesses, because at least I didn't have to worry about getting a last-minute loan or taking out another credit card to replace our irrigation system and other materials!

Is there anything you can take away from this bad-weather experience that you can use next year to help mitigate any damages, or is this just the nature of the beast? 

Farming is inherently risky. You never know what kind of weather, pest, or disease is going to come your way. However, this disaster has increased my interest in growing in hoophouses and greenhouses, because they allow you to have a bit more control over the elements. Also, my husband and I are looking to buy a farm in the next several years, so this has added to the list of farm characteristics to watch out for, i.e., low ground and poor drainage!

Is bad weather something that could potentially put the future success of your farm in jeopardy? 

Absolutely. Most beginning farmers are one hailstorm, flood, or tornado away from going out of business, for several reasons. First, it takes a large amount of capital to get a successful farm up and running, and if your equipment and crops are wiped out, you end up in a very precarious situation. Second, beginners like me haven't established a long-enough track record to qualify for crop insurance, and then even when we do, it's expensive. However, there is an amazing community of folks who recognize the value of local, sustainable farms and are willing to reach out after a disaster. Laughing Loon has been so grateful and lucky to receive dozens of donations from friends, neighbors, and even complete strangers who want to see us succeed and keep farming. We're going to use those donations to buy seed for replanting and replacement materials like row cover and irrigation supplies.  
Anything else that you might like to add? 

If anyone would like to help us in the recovery process by donating time, skills, or money, please visit the Laughing Loon Farm Facebook page for updates and volunteer opportunities.

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