After a year of extreme weather, local farmers struggle

Woman works in a garden with plants damaged by a drought
Ashley Deshotels picks through a damaged bed at Earthshare Gardens in Scott, where irrigations costs have gone through the roof. Photo by Travis Gauthier

As a mother and a farmer, Lilli Voorhies has a lot on her plate in a good year. This year, with its extreme weather conditions — a late freeze in March and an exceptionally dry, hot summer — pushed her Lafayette farm to its limits.

Her first crop of lima beans, which she grows for seed production, selling the seeds to a company in North Carolina, died in the unexpected freeze. Over the summer, she struggled to keep dormant plants like cucumbers alive. Crops planted from seed wouldn’t germinate in the hot, dry clay.

“It’s been a financial hit, it’s been a customer relations hit and not being able to feed our community is a really big deal to me,” Voorhies said. 

Farmers across the state have struggled through the intense summer heat and drought, leaving farm stands barren and causing financial losses that are difficult to recoup.

Irrigation costs were through the roof, said Chris Adams, board president of Earthshare Gardens, a community farm in Scott. “Last summer. I think we ran the sprinklers for about three or four weeks, over a six month period,” he said. “This summer was probably completely reversed. There might have been three or four weeks where we didn’t need to.”

Some of the soil at Bumble Prairie Farms is still cracked from months of drought and hot weather on Wednesday, November 1, 2023, in Lafayette, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

Hundreds of dollars a month spent on irrigation meant no funding for structural upgrades, such as new washing stations, that the farm had planned for this year. And Earthshare is lucky: The farm has access to Lafayette’s water system. For many rural farmers, trying to keep crops alive meant digging wells and installing small-scale irrigation systems.

“They were temporary solutions, but they’re solutions that people have used to keep crops alive this year,” said Margee Green, director of SPROUT NOLA, an organization that helps support farmers with technical assistance and grants.

In response to this year’s difficult climate, SPROUT set up a climate grant program to help cover some of the costs farmers faced as they tried to help their plants survive the summer.

In total, the organization will be distributing $25,000 to 43 farmers statewide. “It’s a drop in the bucket,” Green said. “It’s just difficult to think about how we get the amount of subsidization and support that these growers need, because it’s not an option to just stop having agricultural production.”

Lisa Josey, owner of Josey’s Goods in Duson, buys the produce she uses for her traditional Cajun preserves, jams and pickles from local farmers, including Voorhies.

“We should be eating food that grows in our soil,” Josey said. “Each climate and each area is different — and it’s just fresher.”

But this year, keeping it local has been a struggle. In 2022, Josey premiered a new item, sweet drop peppers, and hoped it would really take off this year. But then came the summer and the specialty pepper, a Brazilia variety called biqhuino, couldn’t be grown. 

Figs too were hard to come by. Overall, Josey was left with less variety and fewer products to sell. “Whatever we cook now, that’s it until the next season,” she said. 

Inclement weather has posed challenges for Louisiana farmers and ranchers in recent years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued several emergency declarations, covering much of the state, due to heavy rains or extreme drought. Fires raged throughout the summer, destroying farmland and infrastructure.

Lilli Voorhies stands in front of her crops holding her son Cyprien on Wednesday, November 1, 2023, in Lafayette, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

Hurricanes in 2020 and 2021 too have left lingering impacts. And while federal aid to rebuild homes has arrived, economic recovery aid for some regions hit by the 2020 storms is yet to be distributed.

“They haven’t been able to get relief on that infrastructure failure and now this,” Green said of farmers who suffered damages from hurricanes Laura, Delta and Ida.

The future doesn’t look much brighter, she worries. “This is just a harbinger of what’s to come, which doesn’t make it any less painful,” Green said.

But there are some solutions that can help growers harden their farms against increasingly hot and dry weather.

“The best sustainable practices have a heavy focus on soil, and a heavy focus on retaining soil moisture,” Adams said. At Earthshare Gardens, beds are covered in heavy mulch and full of organic compost to retain as much moisture as possible. 

Swiss chard, one of Bumble Prairie Farms’ fall crops, is now growing on the farm on Wednesday, November 1, 2023, in Lafayette, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

“It’s not something that you can implement overnight,” Adams acknowledged. But, “if it’s something you’re able to build into your farming plan, your farming methods long term, then you’ll be less at risk during times of drought.”

Despite the difficult conditions and lingering impact on her soil, Voorhies said her fall crops — pea shoots, turnips, radishes and arugula are growing as expected. “They’re doing amazing,” she said. And while she lost most of her eggplants during the summer, some are still growing now, later than usual.