Brutal Weather Pushes Miami's Organic Farms to the Brink

Torrential rains. Unseasonal blistering heat. Fungus. This year's growing season, the months spanning November to May, have been plagued by a seemingly never-ending string of weather-related problems that have destroyed crops at countless South Florida farms. 

"We probably lost 80 percent of what was planted in the field during the flood," Little River Cooperative's Muriel Olivares said.

Yet the freakishly unpredictable weather hasn't created only short-term issues. Instead, many of South Florida's organic farmers see a potentially multiyear weather pattern changing the way they operate well into the future. Much of it has to do with the soil. It's called marl, and it's the nutrient-rich amalgam left behind after a series of canals and pumps drained South Florida to make way for farmland and eventually urban and suburban development. 

At Tiffany Noe and Olivares' North Miami farm, the flood leached nutrients from the soil to the point where those planted died shortly after germinating. Quick crops such as radishes, salad greens, and turnips that were planted to help cover some of the financial losses withered. 

"It was like an immediate clue to us that something was wrong outside of what you could see with the naked eyed," Olivares said on a recent day as she set up her stand at the Upper EastSide Farmers Market (Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.). If the pattern continues in coming years, she may pack up and take the farm to Homestead or elsewhere. "I want to see what happens next year before I make a drastic decision like not farming there anymore, move to Homestead, higher ground, or moving north."

The devastating rains had a different impact on Margie Pikarsky's Bee Heaven Farm in the Redland. Instead of planting in October to be ready for the November markets, the farm was stymied by rains that rendered the land almost unusable. "We were so saturated you couldn't work the soil," Pikarsky said on a recent Sunday while setting up her stand at the Pinecrest Gardens Farmers Market. "You'd destroy it if you tried." 

Though they were able to begin planting as the calendar rolled over to a new year (Pikarsky said the lemongrass and garlic chives are looking nice), the waters open up another box of problems: disease and fungus that permeate the soil and can be passed onto plants.

The deluge caused a similar problem even for farms on higher ground that weren't as flooded. "Fungus tends to live in your soil all the time, and normally there’s no rain, so you can control the irrigation and water just at the root of the plants," said Chuck Lyon, farm director for Verde Community Farm & Market. But when the rains persist, all of that effort collapses as spore-soaked soil splashes up onto the greens. "Once it's in there, you're out of luck," Lyon said. Those hardest hit were the nightshades, including eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers. They thrive in the heat but easily succumb to fungus. Unlike conventional farms, organic farms can't simply deploy a barrage of fungicide to knock out the pests.

The unseasonably warm weather, though recently subsided, has also made staple crops more difficult to grow. "When it's that warm, all the lettuce will bolt and go to seed, cilantro will go bad, you won't get a crop," he added. 

Should all the harsh weather continue, South Florida farmers may have to fundamentally change how they work even if they prefer to make only slight changes from year to year. The warmer weather could mean a shorter season for South Florida's traditional winter crops while expanding the growing season for tropical fruits and the variety the climate can support. 

"If it goes in that direction," Lyon said, "you're going to have to completely change how you think about how you grow crops down here."

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