If you are a fan of picking up fresh tomatoes at a local farmers market, you may find higher prices and less selection late this summer and early fall. Heavy spring and summer rains, and cooler than normal temperatures have conspired to make this a less-than bountiful harvest.
Vegetable specialist Allen Straw with the Virginia State Extension Service met recently with Floyd County produce grower Ronald DeHart. Surveying DeHart's 50-60 acres of tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, half-runner beans and broccoli the expert and the farmer discuss the impact the weather is having and will have on the harvest and ultimately on what DeHart will earn this season.
During one week, DeHart figures a foot of rain fell on his fields. It happened during the critical planting time for some crops and for others during a time when pesticides needed to be sprayed. Neither task happened according to schedule because it was too wet. DeHart explains, "Like the tomatoes and stuff, a lot of them we just couldn't get in the field to plant them. Once we got them planted you couldn't get in here and spray them when you needed too." He says the weather conditions this year are the wettest he's seen in 15 years of growing produce. Straw, of the extension service, confirms the same thing on a broader regional basis. He estimates the tomato harvest will be off 20-25 percent across southwestern Virginia and throughout produce-growing areas of the southeastern United States.
Commenting on planting delays of 10 days to three weeks Straw said, "So everything is a little bit late. A lot of disease issues, so a lot of people are having to spray more frequently than normal...I have some organic growers I work with, where they're not spraying or only spraying biological product. They're basically not even harvesting a crop. The crop is dying before they can get it harvested." When asked if they prefer drought over wet, both men feel dry conditions are more manageable because you can rely on irrigation water. Straw said, "I used to work with a man who had a slogan, his daddy told him: You think you'll starve to death in a dry year and you will in a wet year."
This all means that lovers of fresh produce may end up paying more for vegetables like tomatoes in the coming months. Produce from local truck farms is sold directly at farmer's markets or to grocery chains in the region. Straw predicts, "I think it's going to be a little bit higher by the time the season's over on average. I think it may not be quite as available. Not that you won't be able to go to the store and find it, but I don't think it'll be as plentiful as often times."
It also means farmers like Ronald DeHart won't produce as much income from their produce. He estimates his revenue will be down about 25%; survivable but not something he wants to repeat.