Sunday, October 14, 2007

You can't fool Mother Nature for very long can you?

Shoppers at local farmers' markets -- particularly on the east coast -- may be beginning to wonder if climate change is all that bad. After all many vegetables that would normally no longer be available from local farms continue to be in fresh supply as a result of an unusually warm fall.

Buyers beware. This can be compared to the modern day parable about the frog sitting in a pan of water atop a stove where the temperature is very slowly being increased. At some point as the water transitions from cold to comfortably warm, all seems right with the world. The frog's complacency resulting from the period of temporary temperature bliss leads him to inaction and -- well you know the rest of the story.

So enjoy the late-fall corn and tomatoes, but remember that one way or the other, they won't last. (GW)

Fall's Oddly Mixed Greens

Unseasonably Warm Weather Is Creating An Unusual Blend of Fresh Local Produce

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post
October 13, 2007

Sweet corn a month into football season. Cantaloupes and pumpkins, side by side. Sweater-weather tomatoes.

What's next, watermelon jack-o-lanterns?

At farmers markets across the region this year, October is the new July. And that's just fine with shoppers such as Leigh Hilderbrand, who was buying very-late-season produce Thursday at the Penn Quarter Farmers Market in the District. The Senate staffer ignored the apple cider, potted mums and winter squash in favor of the $3-a-pound heirloom tomatoes.

"I hold on to summer as long as I can, and this has been wonderful," said Hilderbrand, who was stuffing plump tomatoes into a sack already heavy with sweet corn. "Every week I ask, 'How much longer? How much longer?' But it just keeps coming. I guess this is the upside of global warming."

For area farmers markets, produce stands and fresh-food restaurants, October hasn't represented early fall so much as endless summer. Usually by this time, a run of cold weather has marked the shift from corn, sweet peppers and their warm-weather fellows to turnips, potatoes and other fall fare.

This year, though a prolonged drought has devastated many crops, growers with access to irrigation have enjoyed extra weeks of good growing weather. Unseasonably high temperatures and a long-delayed hard frost have meant that crops from both seasons are spilling together from the autumn cornucopia.

"What you expect in winter and what you expect in fall are sort of colliding on the table this year," said Ann Yonker, co-founder and director of a string of farmers markets in the region, including Penn Quarter and the Sunday Dupont Circle market. Her growers are reporting some of the longest-lasting summer harvests in memory. "The very fact that it's the middle of October and you have corn and tomatoes in abundance in the market is just incredible."

For some cooks, the late supply of produce has meant a sort of extra-innings approach to summer meals. Hilderbrand planned a picnic-style corn salad for dinner in spite of the fall breeze blowing down Eighth Street on the first cool day of the month. Carol Rollins of McLean had another few nights of green salad and homemade spaghetti sauce in mind as she loaded up on pounds of Big Beef tomatoes at the weekly Rockville Farmers Market on Wednesday. "We just love fresh tomatoes," she said. "It's a treat to still be able to get them."

Some professional chefs, too, are hanging on to summer cuisine as long as the harvest holds out. At Vermillion, an Alexandria restaurant known for farm-fresh ingredients, cold soups are still on the menu, as are summer salads. Chef Tony Chittum said the three farm co-ops that supply most of his produce are still bringing in quality tomatoes, raspberries and cucumbers.

"This is late even for our southern Virginia suppliers," said Chittum, who tweaks his menu as often as three times a week. "I'm still using blackberries now in a mixed green salad with goat cheese. That's a light salad of summer produce."

But for some shoppers, the idea of finding sweet corn and cucumbers next to apple butter and kale is a bit like finding a penguin in the desert. Those who will happily thump a watermelon in the hot summer sun might find it odd in the lengthening fall shadows.

"Some people seem downright leery that we still have it," Cote Wylie said as she straightened up a basket of fresh corn at the Penn Quarter market. She assures the reluctant that it really was picked less than a day before at Toigo Orchards near Shippensburg, Pa., and she promises that fresh October corn can be just as sweet as ears picked in the heat of July.

Down a few stalls at the Sunnyside Farms booth, Carlos Vasquez said most of his customers are bypassing the long spread of tomatoes, melons and berries and heading straight for the greens, radishes and carrots. "People have changed their channel to fall," he said. "We're not selling nearly as many tomatoes as we do in the summer."

For farmers, the elastic season has been a mixed blessing. Richard Masser, one of the owners of Scenic View Orchard near Frederick, sells produce at markets in Rockville and Gaithersburg. While he appreciates the extra sales, the overlapping crops have also meant exhausting double shifts. He and his co-workers have found themselves working produce from different pages of the calendar at the same time.

"You get tired after a while," Masser said. "We've still got lima beans and peppers coming in. But we've got apples now, too. We're doing double duty with less and less daylight to do it."

Masser, like other growers, has a big question about the prolonged warm stretch that has capped his summer: Is it a trend?

It could be, according to agricultural extension agents in the region, who report incremental increases in the season recently.

"Over the last couple of years, we have seen our growing season extended, and our growers are trying to take advantage of it," said Corey Childs, a Virginia extension agent in Loudoun County. "For low-labor operations, that could be stressful. They're not set up to handle it."

Some farmers are already adapting. Jim Crawford, a Pennsylvanian who sells produce in the District each weekend, has been adding a late corn crop to his summer rotation in recent years.

It used to be that any corn planted after June was considered a roll-of-the-dice proposition, as any serious cool stretch would keep it from ripening. But Crawford has been moving his last planting date later each year, and it's been paying off. This year, he didn't get the seeds in until July 9, and he now wishes he had planted even more than he did.

"Next year, I'm sure we'll be planting later," Crawford said. "We don't want the climate to be screwed up, but at the same time we want as long a season as we can get."


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