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Taming the uncertainty in the Midwest

midwest spotlight

The only thing certain about the future is uncertainty.

Mike Bilokonsky, managing member of Cincinnati’s Whitehorse Freight, LLC, BB #:323900 echoes a common sentiment when he says, “Every day is uncertain; every week is uncertain.” But uncertainty seems to be accelerating for the Midwest produce industry.

Unstable Weather: Here to Stay?
Probably the most pronounced uncertainty has to do with the climate.

“I don’t remember the weather patterns being as severe and unstable as they have in the last year or two,” says Ron Miller, president of Cleveland’s Miller Quality Produce Inc. BB #:152697

“It’s created extreme shortages. Supply is less available. Prices go up so high that it slows things down on the retail end,” Miller adds, citing previously unheard-of prices of $90-100 a box for celery.

The wet weather of early 2019 can’t be written off as a seasonal aberration. “In the past century, annual precipitation has risen by 10%” across the Midwest, a faster increase than for the nation as a whole, according to The Economist newsmagazine. The Great Lakes region has heated up by 1.9°F over the past 116 years.

With all the dank weather so late into the 2019 season, talk of global warming may sound ridiculous, but the situation isn’t so simple.

In the recent past, 2019 saw late planting in many areas. Back in June, Miller said, many cabbage growers were seven weeks behind in their planting. As a result, gluts may show up late in the season. “It happens a lot with sweet corn; with extremely hot weather, it all comes in at once. It creates oversupply. Usually it’s a catastrophe for the farmer.”

Of course, every season is different, and as one grower quipped, “There’s no such thing as normal weather.”

Besides, many would no doubt agree with Rob Strube, president of Chicago’s Strube Celery & Vegetable Company, BB #:102030 when he points out, “I feel most growers know how to adapt to weather setbacks.”

Sam Maglio, president of Maglio Companies, BB #:105281 headquartered in Glendale, WI, concurs.

Speaking about the difficult early season of 2019, he says, “Most growers know how to deal with adverse weather conditions that spring can deliver. The rebound and recovery from that difficult start is what separates good growers from great ones. We have many experienced ‘great’ growers in the Midwest region who can maximize the return of their investment despite almost any of Mother Nature’s tricks.”

So the industry can adapt to shifts in the weather. It’s just that its capacity for adaptation may have to stretch over coming years.

This is a multi-part spotlight feature on Midwest produce adapted from the October 2019 issue of Produce Blueprints.

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.