Cold, wet spring made for some stressed-out farmers — and delayed strawberries

Boston Globe, June 10, 2019, By Alison Arnett

The stands at the Copley Square Farmers Market recently were bursting with green — lettuces, kale, bok choy, spinach, and herbs. Tiny baby radishes, sugar snap peas, asparagus, and even a few hot-house tomatoes were eagerly snapped up by customers. On a glorious late spring day, it seemed that the cold, wet start to the season was over.

To farmers, the last few weeks have been a race to get the season’s planting started, and only recent dry weather and warmth are easing their nerves. Early in May, Kevin O’Dwyer of Langwater Farm in North Easton had lamented that the weather kept him from getting into the fields to plant. “We’re getting caught up now,” he said Friday. “By the end of next week, we’ll have everything in the ground.”

The news from the Midwest is dire, where there are reports of fields in Iowa still under water from flooding, and corn and soybean planting in several states has barely begun. To customers here, the wet weather seemed to threaten the starts of local summer farmers markets; a few, such as Charles Square in Cambridge and Copley Square in Boston, opened in May with most in the area opening this month and a few not until July. But here, many farmers say, the cold has affected vegetables more than the rain.

It also helped, says Chris Kurth of Siena Farms in Sudbury, to have fields that drained well. “Cooler temperatures have meant that planted vegetables haven’t been growing very fast,” he said. But crops like green garlic and asparagus loved the extra rain, and are stars at his early markets in Copley Square and at the Boston Public Market and Siena Farms store in the South End.

Carl Hills of Kimball Fruit Farm in Pepperell, which sells at many area farmers markets, also credits planting success with his fields being “upland.” He’s selling tomatoes seeded in January in greenhouses, and cooler-weather crops such as kales, Swiss chard, and lettuces. But he added that the warm-weather crops are finally “getting going now” with a stretch of warmer, drier weather.

April and May were “incredibly stressful,” said Gideon Porth of Atlas Farm. Springtime is so important, and “we were definitely running behind.” Last year’s production was terrible, so he was banking on a good start to 2019. But he’s feeling much more hopeful now, “We’re catching up,” said the Deerfield farmer who sells at the Copley Square Farmers Market and in his Deerfield farm store.

However, one late arrival, several farmers agree, are native strawberries, usually in markets by now. Hills of Kimball Fruit Farm said that last week his staff picked one of the first strawberries, and he expects peak production to be in a week to 10 days. Porth also sees a week delay in strawberries, but says he’ll probably have a small amount next Friday at the Copley Square Market. Hills of Kimball Fruit Farm said that the peach trees are full of fruit after a fairly mild winter, and the cherries and plums look good.

One big boost for many farmers, said Kurth of Siena, is the Healthy Incentive Program, which gives SNAP (that’s the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) recipients dollar-for-dollar matching funds when they buy targeted fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, farm stands, mobile markets, and CSAs. The Massachusetts program, which started in 2017, has been so popular that it had to be suspended for a few months in spring 2018 and this year when funds ran out. It started up again May 25. Kurth credits the HIP customers with boosting his business so much that “some days at Copley and Boston Public Market, HIP accounts for 50 to 90 percent of the sales.”

He’s even added more Asian greens and other vegetables to his planting rotations, and this year hired a bilingual staff member because of the number of Asian customers. “Part of it is that these communities still cook,” Kurth said, adding that “If HIP hadn’t rolled into our lives two years ago, I might not still be farming.”

O’Dwyer of Langwater Farm said he also has added crops such as collards for HIP customers, and said customers are sometimes surprised to find vegetables native to their countries that they can’t find in a supermarket. Laura Smith of Lane Gardens, a four-generation farm in Dighton, Seekonk, and Rehoboth, is also enthusiastic. “It has been the best thing that ever happened to us,” she said.

Winton Pitcoff, director of Massachusetts Food System Collaborative which advocates for HIP funding, said that the program has provided $9 million in healthy, local food to more than 55,000 SNAP families, and has been phenomenally successful. Not only has it grown 30 percent over the last year, but it’s being used as a model in other states. This “incentive to healthy eating” is designed to stabilize families, he said, but it also helps farmers with sales and with being able to plan for an upcoming season. Two-hundred farms are now taking HIP payments, with 80 farms on a waiting list.

Last year’s budget for HIP was $4.4 million, he said, and the collaborative proposed that the state double that in the next budget, usually voted on in July. As of now the state House and Senate are looking at lesser amounts, and Pitcoff is hoping that the resulting budget will sustain the program and ideally support it year-round. Winter farmers markets “are particularly important” to SNAP recipients, he said, when they face heating bills and other expenses, and really benefit from healthy produce. And that would also allow farmers to plan ahead and sell more stored root crops and greenhouse and hoop crops. As Smith said: “Winters are tough for farmers,” and extra money then is really helpful.

Meanwhile, farmers are hoping that this year won’t end in months of rain like 2018. The wet, cold start was not as bad as late fall last year when rain slowed harvest and even ruined crops. As O’Dwyer said it’s heartbreaking “to see all of your season’s work sitting in water and losing it.”