At D.C. farmers market, Eli Cook says mild winter has hurt his bottom line.
The Sunday farmers market in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., is a bright, busy place. In front of the Metro station, on 20th Street Northwest, vendors gather to sell everything from fruits and vegetables to fabric and organic soaps.
On April 1, customers leisurely strolled from stand to stand purchasing items, mingling with vendors and enjoying the unseasonably warm weather of an early spring.
But while warm weather tends to bring more people out to the market, one farmer, Eli Cook, who owns Spring Valley Farm and Orchard in Slanesville, W.Va., said the warm weather hurts his bottom line.
“The warm weather is good for marketing. People tend to come out to farmers markets on nice days,” Cook said. “The downside to the warm weather is that my fruit and vegetable crops are blooming too early. My peach blossoms began to bloom on March 15. That’s 30 days early.”
Cook also said the premature start to the spring season caused his strawberry, apple and asparagus blossoms to bloom early, and the fluctuation in the temperatures last month caused some blossoms to freeze and die.
“When fruits and vegetables bloom early … they are more susceptible to be exposed to sunburn and frost,” he said. “Last month, I lost 50 percent of my peach and apple bulbs due to frost, and a quarter of a million dollars.”
Spring is early
Every spring the meteorologists at the National Weather Service Forecast Office of Baltimore/Washington, including Greg Schoor, call the land managers of local counties across the region to find out if the growing seasons have begun in order to help farmers conserve their crops.
The Chesapeake region has experienced “abnormally warm temperatures ranging from 5 to 10 degrees warmer than average since the beginning of the year,” Schoor said in a phone interview.
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“We have had a few days where temperatures were above average and then below normal,” he said. “The plants have definitely responded to that,” Schoor said. He also said that they’ve had to issue several frost and freeze advisories.”We had a few nights in March where … the temperature was below 32 degrees.”
Between March 1 and March 15, the temperature fluctuated dramatically, according to the National Weather Service Forecast Office of Baltimore/Washington’s preliminary monthly climate report for last month. During this period, the region experienced the lowest temperature, 23 degrees, on March 11 and the highest temperature, 83 degrees, just four days later.
While area residents enjoy the warm weather by dining at outdoor seating at restaurants, jogging and bike riding, many local farmers like Cook are worried about just breaking even this season.
Ann Yonkers, co-executive director of FreshFarm Markets, said that the weather has drastically affected the farmers in the FreshFarm Markets network. FreshFarm Markets is a nonprofit organization that helps provide work opportunities for local farmers by hosting farmers markets and other programs in the region.
“I think that it’s pretty accurate to say that anybody in the market system … [who is] growing tree fruit from apricots to apples to pears to peaches to plums will have experienced some impact from the weather,” Yonkers said.
“The window of opportunity for damage to the blossom was longer than typical because the trees were blooming so early and were subject to frost,” she said. “Any significant loss of a farmer’s product … affects their pocketbooks.”
Bugs and fungus problems
In addition to freezing temperatures, farmers like Cook have to watch out for bugs, fungus and mold that in most years would have been killed off by snow and cold weather.
“When the temperature is 10 degrees or below, the ground freezes and insects die,” Cook said. “We didn’t have a real winter to kill off insects or fight fungus and mold, so we might be dealing with generations of insects that never died.”
Yonkers echoed Cook’s sentiment.
“There are three things, in addition to frost, that can do formidable damage in the fields: insects, fungus and mold,” she said. “Three classes of things that attack … none were killed off during the winter. It’s clear that the fungus and mold problem will be stronger, and it will affect the productivity of the veggie and fruit harvest for our farmers.”