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Farmers Adapt to Intense Summer Heat

It’s the hottest part of the day…just after lunch time. The oppressive heat has prompted Curtis Millsap to change the work schedule on his farm north of Springfield.

“We can’t work mid-day right now. From lunchtime til about 3:30 or 4, we’ll take a break. One hundred, 110 degree heat index is too much to have people out working in the fields. It’s asking for trouble. You’ll get people injured with heat stroke and all those things.”

He turns on the drip irrigation system, an important tool in fighting the heat.

“This is a little bed of mizuna here, which is a Japanese salad crop. Well, it looks mostly like grass because there’s grass in there too. We’ve been pouring water on it and that’s why it’s still green. Anything we don’t pour water on, you can see the pathways, the grass pathways, they’re brown.”

Millsap also shows me some of his tomato plants.

“Here you can see some of the blossoms that should stay on there and become tomatoes are just falling off. It’s just too hot for them.”

Some of the leaves on the tomato plants are beginning to curl in on themselves.

“It’s a self-defense mechanism. They’re curling up the leaves so they’ll have less surface area that’ll evaporate. So it conserves moisture, but it also stops or at least slows down photosynthesis because there’s not as much leaf area exposed. So, it’s a trade off: The plant stays alive but it’s not going to necessarily produce the sugars it needs to ripen the fruit.”

The lettuce crop has been particularly hard hit by the heat. Millsap says he has one possible solution.

“You can see those hoops. What we’re going to do is we have lettuce planted underneath those hoops. Then we’ll put shade clothe across the top of the hoops, so that it reduces the sun temperature on the plants. It won’t reduce the ambient temperature, of course, but it will keep the sun off of them.”

As for how the heat is impacting his bottom line…Millsap says he hasn’t come up with an estimate yet…and the situation is still unfolding. If there’s a financial upside, it’s that people still want to buy fresh produce.

“The demand is still there and the supply is greatly reduced. In the past, this time of year, we’d be down to a dollar a pound for tomatoes. And right now, we’re getting $3 a pound. So, that helps and makes it a lot more worthwhile. And the tomatoes that are out there are really good. The heat makes the flavors really concentrate. It takes all the same nutrients, sugars and flavors but compacts them into a smaller, less water-filled fruit and it’s delicious.”

Adding to the troubles facing farmers is a prolonged dry spell. The intense heat is expected to continue into the weekend.