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Thursday, July 10, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 79.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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FOOD AND DRINK

Food prices, and quality, hold steady so far in Wisconsin's summer 2012 drought

Quality produce can still be found, since crops can survive the dry heat if they are properly irrigated.
Credit:Teddy Nykiel
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Despite the drought and extreme heat across southern Wisconsin this summer, food prices haven't gone up much.

"We purchase local, seasonally available vegetables right now, and we're not seeing any increase in prices," says Andy Johnston, the produce manager at Willy Street Co-op East.

According to a UW Cooperative Extension report, this summer's drought rivals the one from 1988. And according to a National Weather Service report, rainfall deficits for June and July are between three and six inches. As of the end of July, southern Wisconsin was experiencing severe to extreme levels of drought, as detailed in a U.S. Drought Monitor map.

The extreme heat is taking a toll on almost all crops, but in different ways, says Randall Hagen, produce manager at Metcalfe's West. Some plants may be affected by more bugs, while others may not pollinate properly. Yields are down, and quality is harder to come by, he explains.

"In the past, everybody would have beautiful stuff," says Hagen. "Now, you have to look hard."

Quality produce can still be found, since crops can survive the dry heat if they are properly irrigated. Although Metcalfe's Market has seen some price increases due to the drought, Hagen says he has been trying to work with growers to "hold the line" on crop prices.

Johnston disagrees with Hagen's assessment, saying it's been a good year -- no worse than any other. He says some plants, like tomatoes and peppers, do well in warm weather, although he qualifies this.

"They only do well to certain points," he says. "If it's 100 degrees, they're not doing well."

Johnston also notes that many local farmers diversify their crops, so when the drought hit, they didn't lose everything.

"They've got their eggs in different baskets," he says.

Irrigation, which is necessary during a drought, is expensive. A recent calculation by Harmony Valley Farm in Viroqua showed irrigation costs are 5-8 % higher than usual, assuming the remainder of the summer is as dry as it's been thus far.

Richard DeWilde, co-owner and manager of Harmony Valley, says his crops this summer have done "pretty darn good." He goes as far as saying that drought conditions can be favorable, since moisture often leads to leaf spots, which lower the quality of the plant.

"[Plants] don't mind the heat so much, as long as they have water," he says.

Despite the increase in irrigation costs, DeWilde hasn't raised his prices, since the drought's problems are balanced by the benefits, like healthier leaves.

"Hot and dry -- the kind of summer we've had -- has been a challenge," he says. "But our business is sound, and balanced over several years,"

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