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New Jersey growers hoping for dry spell to get back on track

by John Groh | April 07, 2010
With March bringing record rainfall to many parts of the Garden State followed by unseasonably warm temperatures in early April, growers are keeping one eye on their fields and the other on the weather forecast as they hope for a reprieve from the extremes and a return to a normal production schedule.

Bill Nardelli, president of Nardelli Bros. in Cedarville, NJ, told The Produce News April 6 that water remains on the ground in low-lying areas and that some areas are still not able to be farmed, but "everybody seems to have enough high ground that they have been able to get started. We had a little gap at the middle or end of March where we were able to dry out a bit and get seed planted, then we got a little rain that kept us out for a few days. But despite that, the stuff looks remarkably well."

He added that the situation would have been a lot worse if the rain had come later in the season. "It would have been more detrimental to us," he said of that scenario. "But since we were able to seed stuff and having wintered-over stuff and having stuff under row cover, we were able to keep the quality very nice. What we hope for now is not a lot more rain in order to stay on schedule. If it dries out now, we should be in good shape."

With temperatures spiking to summer-like levels the week of April 5, the ground temperature will rise and help things recover, according to Mr. Nardelli. "We've already started with spinach, cilantro, parsley, leeks and rapini, and then greens like collard and mustard will come on," he said. "Commodities like some of the early lettuce will be late by a week or so, but we'll be rolling along pretty nicely if things stay dry."

David Arena, president of Frank Donio Inc. in Hammonton, NJ, agreed, saying that the area is still so wet, but the above-normal temperatures have allowed the company to get its production back on track. And the company is planning to pick up the pace in a hurry - if the weather cooperates.

"Certain crops recover easily and certain crops don't. It will depend on the weather in the next couple of weeks," Mr. Arena said. "Leafy greens will be about eight to 14 days late, and some of the dry veg we get in late June could be late if we don't get back on track."

The unusual weather has been an issue up and down the East Coast, and as such has set the stage for a potential glut of production in the coming weeks. "We have to see how things play out," said Mr. Nardelli, "but if things continue the way they are going, there could be a lot of areas producing simultaneously in the spring."

He said that the freeze in Florida and Georgia this past winter set those areas back, and as a result, parts of the Carolinas will have product before Georgia. "Probably in mid-May, we'll see the whole East Coast in production," said Mr. Nardelli. "We're hoping the northern areas [north of New Jersey] will stay a little cooler to hold them back a little. We need our window to get things done a little earlier than the Midwest and Northeast. It looks like a lot of the New England growers are way behind due to the significant flooding they had up there."

Bob Donio, vice president of Frank Donio Inc., concurred with Mr. Nardelli but added that it is still too early to say if that would be the case. A glut in production "could happen in the middle of June, which is when hardware vegetables like cukes, squash and peppers start to happen in bigger volume. But everything depends on the weather. We should know by the second or third week in April," he said.

So far, there have not been any quality issues detected as a result of the abundant moisture in the fields.

"Quality issues related to moisture are always a concern," said Mr. Arena. "That's why we spend so much money on post-harvest cooling, so we can get the field temperature out to keep it as fresh as we can."

Mr. Donio added that the effect of the weather on the company's blueberry crop was also a concern. "It's also too early to tell, but with all this hot weather, the danger is that the plants could start to bloom too early, which is risky because if we get a freeze after they bloom, it could be a catastrophe. Normally, they bloom the middle of April (13-20), but if they start blooming this weekend, it would be a week to 10 days early. If the weather stays warm, we could be looking at an early season, but if it cools off, then it would be a normal spring."

Mr. Donio added, "In all the years I have been in the business, the weather pattern [this year] has been the craziest. The cold weather in Florida, the rains in Mexico -- you can't get into any kind of pattern or rhythm. For the most part, things could equalize and get back on schedule rather quickly depending on the weather."