What a long strange growing season it's been. Heat, rain, heat, rain all at the wrong time, it makes you wonder how are things going down on the Maryland farm? And as Chef Jerry Pellegrino points out, it's not hard to get answers if you shop at our local farmers markets. Early October is usually one of the richest market times of the year, but what about this year?
The weather this year alternated between hot dry periods, which were not conducive to raising fruit and vegetables, with three long periods of steady rain, which makes planting impossible.
I talked with Secretary of Agriculture Joe Bartenfelder, who is a farmer, and he said he's never seen a growing season as bad as this one in his entire life.
Other farmers echo this assessment. Joan Norman of One Straw Farm is ordinarily a bright and sunny woman. But when I asked about the impact of the rain, she immediately became sad and despondent. "Horrible. A disaster, " was all she could say.
Farmers like Joan are gleaning through their fields looking for anything that is in good enough shape to bring to market. Baltimore County farmer Tom Albright told me, "We're bringing things to market, but not in the volume we usually have."
And that's true. Recent visits showed a nice supply of summer squash, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, kale and greens. But the pipeline is running dry.
Bartenfelder told me "Farmers have all sorts of strategies for dealing with bad weather. If you don't hit with this, you plant that and try to make it up later in the year." But when heavy rains keep you from exploiting your back-up slots, the strategy breaks down. "You're not going to be seeing a whole lot coming in November and December. And prices could go up, too."
Cinda Sebastian of Gardner's Gourmet pointed to one or two bright spots.
"Crops grown in greenhouses are just fine. That's why there are so many good looking tomatoes. So it's going to be a greenhouse year." And then unexpectedly she added, "For some reason cauliflower and broccoli aren't bothered that much. They're saving me."
Farmers have various expedients they can fall back on. I looked at a big pile of green tomatoes at Bartenfelder's. "I got to pick them before they rot," he chuckled. So it will be a great year for fried green tomatoes.
Orchard men are not immune. Dave Reid of Reid's Orchards pointed out that when tree fruit is fully ripe it is most vulnerable to rain-related problems. A lot of his apples are not cosmetically marketable, so they go elsewhere. "It's going to be a good year for cider!" he told me.
Dave Hocheimer of Black Rock Orchards said that he was losing a large percentage of his apple, peach and plum crop. This means he won't have as many apples to stash away for selling during the winter months.
The impact of Hurricane Florence cannot be overstated. Maryland was spared a direct blown, but Georgia and the Carolinas were slammed. Ordinarily if we have a tough harvest in Maryland, our farmers can buy produce on the wholesale market to help fill in the gaps. But not this year, which means come late autumn and early winter local produce will be next to non-existent.
Secretary Bartenfelder had a message to the consumers of Maryland. Go out and buy as much as you can from these local farmers right now, to help them bank some income against the lean months that lie ahead. It's the least we can do.