Okra-homa: As the climate warms, Midwest farmers plant Southern crops

Corn no longer as high as an elephant's eye as farmers adapt to climate change — and plant more okra

Okra, a staple of Southern dishes like gumbo, is increasingly embraced by Midwestern farmers
Steve Bisson/AP

LAWRENCE, Kan. — It's no longer as corny as Kansas in August. Now it's cotton, okra and sorghum.

The hotter summers and more intense and frequent droughts in the Midwest are forcing farmers here to forgo the plants of their grandparents' generation and look down South for inspiration.

"We kept trying to grow sustainable tomatoes, but it was so hot that the plants got stressed and they wouldn’t produce fruit," said Courtney Skeeba, who started Homestead Ranch in the small town of Lecompton, Kan., about a decade ago. "By the end of the season, when it did get wetter and cooler, it was too late. So that’s when we started planting okra."

She's not the only one. It's the time of year when farmers look back at the summer and plan for planting ahead. And what they see is a lot of hot and a lot of dry. That's why okra, once a plant squarely rooted in Southern cooking, is headed north — way north. Farmers in Wisconsin are planting okra as well.

Cary Rivard, a fruit and vegetable specialist at the Kansas State Horticulture Research and Extension Center in Olathe, said some growers are producing 1,200 pounds of okra a week to sell at stores in Kansas City.

"That's a lot of okra for veggie growers around here. And I can't imagine what it takes to pick it all," he said.

Tomatoes, broccoli wither

Agriculture specialists say two things are happening: Temperatures are rising, and the water table is dropping. The summer of 2012 was the third-hottest summer on record for the U.S., according to the National Climatic Data Center, and 2013 had record-breaking heat waves. 

At the same time, little rain fell. Much of Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma suffered droughts in the exceptional or worst category in 2012, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The region remained dry throughout much of 2013, rivaling the Dust Bowl years.  

Corn wouldn't pollinate. Tomatoes crashed. Broccoli withered. So farmers started looking for hardy plants that could handle the long 100-degree spells in July and August.

The heat affected not just the plants. It was so dry last year, Skeeba said, her goats went into heat months early and had kids in December — goats usually give birth in March or April — and then a second set at the end of June. She and her partner, Denise, kept some, sold some and processed others for meat.

"It was so dry for so long, and everything was so stressed out, it triggered them to go into cycle earlier," she said.

Cotton's arrival

Chuck Rice, chair of the International Union of Soil Sciences' division on the role of soils in sustaining society and the environment, says it has been so hot that sometimes the pollen on corn goes stale and the plant doesn't fertilize. There has been a 60 percent reduction in crop yields in some areas, he said.  Farmers are planting sorghum instead, which can be used for cattle feed.

Other farmers are switching to an entirely different crop, cotton, because it uses significantly less water than corn.

"We're seeing the expansion of cotton into the Midwest. It's already in the southern tier of Kansas," he said. "I'm seeing cotton coming."

These changes aren't a perfect switch. Cotton produces less ground cover than corn, so when the harvest is over, the soil is drier and more prone to erosion. 

And sorghum doesn't yield as much grain as corn does in good conditions; it's only when it’s too hot that corn fails and other crops prove the better bet, Rice said.

Jerry Hatfield is the laboratory director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa. He said there's been big rise in planting sorghum. In Kansas in 2012, there were 650,000 acres of sorghum planted. In 2013, that rose to 2,750,000 acres.

He said he's seeing increases in Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma as well. "With the warmer temperatures, you're seeing widespread adoption of sorghum because it's more tolerant of heat and water stress than corn," Hatfield said. "Corn is moving into North and South Dakota, where there's a longer growing season and a little increase in rainfall."

Acquiring a taste for okra

Not everyone is rushing to plant okra. First, the pods are hard to pick; the spines on the plant irritate the skin and cause a rash. Then there's the pods' texture, which can be slimy if cooked wrong and woody if picked too late.  

Still, Hatfield said, he can understand why okra is blooming.

"It's because of the climate, and it's also because of economic opportunities," he said. "Farmers are opportunistic, and they're entrepreneurial. They've discovered there's a market for okra and you can profitably grow that crop."

Jill Holstine, owner and operator of Rubicon River Farm in Neosho, Wis., started planting okra four years ago. She also plants kale, another heat- and drought-resistant crop. She puts the okra in the weekly bags she provides to the 130 members of her community-supported agriculture (CSA) group, along with a recipe. (She recommends frying okra to avoid sliminess.)  

"I like throwing okra into the CSA bag because it's something new and I'm looking for something to throw them off," she said. "A couple of my members are from the South, and they were so happy about it, but there are a handful who have requested not to have any more okra in their bags, and that's OK."

Skeeba harvests about 600 pounds of okra a season, and she plans to keep going. Her son makes Christmas ornaments out of dried okra pods and sells them at craft fairs.

"We constantly sell out of the okra that we bring to the market," she said. "Even though it's not a Midwest food in general and it's not that common for Midwesterners to eat okra, something is changing, because by the end of the day, it's gone."

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