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Changing climate impacts local farmers markets

2012 farmers markets

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Updated: September 14, 2012 12:16PM



When you go to the farmers market this spring and summer, if what’s for sale is different from what you expect, blame this season’s wacky weather.

“Mother Nature has not cooperated,” says Paul Thelen of Hillside Orchards in Berrien Springs, Mich., who sells fruit at seven Chicago area farmers markets.

“It’s been a strange spring so far,” agrees Henry Brockman of Henry’s Farm outside Peoria.

March 2012 was the warmest on record in the Midwest, with temperatures averaging 50.3 degrees, breaking the previous, 1910 record of 46.9 degrees, according to the Midwestern Regional Climate Center at the Illinois State Water Survey. That was good news and bad news for produce growers, especially when the warm stretch was followed by some hard frosts.

“One of the challenges for the farmer is determining when the last frost date will be,” says Dr. William Shoemaker, vegetable crops specialist with the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service Department of Crop Sciences in St. Charles. That date determines when it’s safe to plant.

Early this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a new version of its Plant Hardiness Zone Map, the first update since 1990, which reflected an average 5 degrees and half a zone warmer than the previous map throughout much of the United States, based on data measured at weather stations from 1976 to 2005. That puts the last frost date for each area earlier, too.

However, those are averages, Shoemaker notes. “Day-to-day experience is a little more chaotic.”

“We got some stuff planted earlier than usual. A lot of stuff got burned and frosted,” Brockman says.

Even without damage, the warm early spring throws plants’ and farmers’ timing off. Some produce may have grown and been harvested before most markets open, or be on sale earlier than expected.

“The product is ready, but the money isn’t,” says Thelen. “People aren’t expecting sweet cherries before the 4th of July.”

“Farming is a risk,” says Carl Smith of Smits Farms in Chicago Heights. “We had beautiful chives ready two weeks ago.”

Smith grows herbs and vegetables that he sells at eight local farmers markets as well as at his greenhouse and a farmstand that opens in July. With no markets yet, he had to mow the chives down. Fortunately, Smith says, herbs grow back after such treatment.

Some crops, however, like grapes and apricots, may have been irretrievably harmed by the weather. How much damage growers experienced depends on precisely where their farms lie and what they grow.

According to Shoemaker, Michigan was harder hit by weather vagaries than Illinois, in part because when the warm stretch ended, it got colder there. Also, farmers there grow more fruit trees and perennial crops, which came out of dormancy in the warmth and thus were vulnerable to frosts.

“When the tree is dormant, it can take a lower temperature,” explains Thelen, who grows chestnuts, apples, peaches, cherries and other fruit. “There’s a lot of damaged buds. You cut them and they’re black inside. It doesn’t look good.”

In Illinois, says Harry Alten, president of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association, “rain kind of held the ice back.” Also, most vegetable growers plant annually and later, so they’re not as affected. Farmers who jumped the gun and sowed seed early may have to replant, but seed is the least expensive part of farming. Mostly, though, Alten says, farmers were leery of planting in the unseasonable warmth. “They don’t trust it.”

“The main thing we did was practice restraint,” says Marty Gray of Gray Farms, who grows greens and other vegetables in Watseka, Ill., and sells them at the Division Street and Hyde Park farmers markets. He did some trials of early spinach and carrots, but mostly didn’t let the warm weather tempt him into sowing earlier than usual. Instead, he worked in his greenhouse and he and his wife, Crystal, planned their website where she will post recipes for CSA subscribers this season.

“Sugar snap peas were really the only thing that took a hit,” Gray says.

Restraint also has been tough for Smith. “Mentally, I want to be in the field planting tomatoes, because the ground is dry and the air is warm,” he says. He held off, though he did take a few risks. “This was the first year I ever planted corn in March.”

If all goes well, he expects to harvest it by July 1 and might open his farmstand early.

Brockman, who sells at the Evanston Farmers Market, expects spinach, which he planted under cover in the fall, will be ready when the market opens, and early lettuce, grown in hoop houses. “The radishes got zapped.” Potted plants and vegetable starts for home gardeners will be available.

“I think the strawberries will be early,” Alten says.

“Year by year, the trend is for earlier spring, later fall, hotter summers,” says Brockman. “I don’t think anyone can argue that global warming is happening. They can argue about whether man is the cause of it.”

Leah A. Zeldes is a local freelance writer.



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