By Stan Maddux
SCOTTSBURG, Ind. — Some Indiana vegetable growers in the southern part of the state are blaming smoke from the wildfires in Canada for their tomatoes being over a month behind in ripening.
Robin Smith of Sadona Farms near Scottsburg said her tomatoes have never remained green this late in the season. Normally, she’s picking red tomatoes from her three acres of plants in the middle of June to sell at farmers markets.
It wasn’t until about a week ago that she noticed a single tomato finally starting to ripen.
“We did have one starting to turn red and since then I’ve had about five more so I think we’re kind of getting over the hump,” she said.
Gene Hawkins, who also lives near Scottsburg, reported similar problems in his half acre garden not just with his tomatoes, though. Many of his cut flowers like dahlias, sunflowers and peonies are about one-third of their normal size and not ready to bloom yet.
“Stuff that we had last year that was already a month into blooming is just now getting to where it’s showing anything,” he said.
Smith said other crops such as corn, squash and green beans on her remaining seven acres of soil have not shown any noticeable signs of stunted growth or delay in reaching maturity.
Hawkins, though, who also offers his produce at farmers markets said some of the wide variety of peppers he grows like jalapeno, cayenne and bell are not nearly the size they should be at this point in the season.
“This time last year I had probably at least three crates full of peppers. This year, I got maybe a handful,” he said.
Whether the smoke from Canada is to blame for blocking some of the rays from the sun needed by plants to thrive has not been proven as a factor.
However, Smith and Hawkins said the skies more often than not have been hazy at their small farms since early June after the string of wildfires first broke out.
On several occasions, Smith said she has even smelled smoke when nothing in the area was burning.
“Every time I walk out, that’s all I smell,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins also blamed the smoke for creating toxicity in the air which he feels also contributed to the stunted growth and 25-percent of his crop to wither and die.
Dan Quinn, an agronomist at Purdue University, said it’s possible the smoke drifting in from Canada is to blame by reflecting enough sunlight and making the air at ground level more toxic from elevated ozone levels.
He said it’s also possible the smoke helped improve the condition of crops struggling from drought conditions earlier in the growing season.
Quinn said that’s because reduced sunlight can help lower the surface temperature on the leaves of crops and allow plants to retain more water than lose through evaporation.
“In Indiana, we saw the elimination of some of that drought stress,” he said.
However, Quinn said he could not say with any certainty the smoke has made any difference in the fields because it’s something that’s difficult to study.
“We kind of have an idea of how it can impact these crops but how much one way or another is really difficult for us to quantify,” he said.
Overall, he said corn and soybeans don’t seem impacted much, if any, from the smoke but the flowering on corn plants, though, is about five days behind the five-year average statewide.
He felt the very dry conditions in June and a lot of delayed planting of corn this year are the more likely reasons than smoke for corn being slightly behind schedule.
“Talking to a lot of the climatologists, plant physiologists and other folks they just don’t see a very large impact on the crops from it. They’re very well aware of it and it’s something we are monitoring,” he said.