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East Coast heat effects mixed across states

by Christina DiMartino | July 14, 2010
The East Coast has been contending with a significant heat wave, and growers from north to south have been feeling the effects.

"During the second week of June, temperatures in Georgia, the Carolinas and into Virginia were averaging from 102 to 105 degrees, and even soared to as high as 107 in some areas," Calvert Cullen, president of Northampton Growers, headquartered in Cheriton, VA, told The Produce News. "Most growers' pepper crops, including ours, burned right on the bush. In North Carolina, we had about 500 acres of green beans that we didn't harvest because of the burn they suffered - it burned the bloom right off the plants."

Mr. Cullen added that the intense heat in June also affected squash and other crops.

Jeff Danner, general manager of Eastern Propak LLC in Glassboro, NJ, said that the company had its first run of New Jersey peaches June 24, which was about a week earlier than normal. In an interview with The Produce News June 28, he expressed excitement about the good volume and high quality expected in the state this year.

But in another interview July 13, the situation was a bit different, and he expressed concerns that the heat wave across the East could have a negative effect on the crop and the farmers.

"This has been a substantial scorcher for us in that the temperature is not only really high, but the heat wave has been ongoing for the past couple of weeks," he said. "Normally, a certain amount of irrigation is required this time every year, but up until last Saturday [July 10], we had no appreciable rain for the better part of a month. We had a nice drench on Saturday, but it lasted only long enough to allow the irrigation equipment to cool down for a short time."

Mr. Danner added that while drip or overhead irrigation is great in that it enables trees to put out some good-sized fruit, it does not compare to the moisture that Mother Nature can deliver.

"One inch of rain is as good or better than two inches of water from irrigation," he said. "We haven't seen too much in terms of the fruit scorching, but if we don't break out of this heat wave soon, it will be just a matter of time before we start having some problems. We're seeing size reduction on some of the early peach varieties, but it's not a big issue. As mid-season fruit starts to come on, however, we need large sizes in order to compete with other areas of the country."

Being able to compete with other areas this year was a concern even before the heat wave. Mr. Danner said that it is an unusual year for peaches in that all producing areas of the country are seeing good crop volumes, resulting in a possible over-abundance on the market that could affect prices.

"It's not just the peach crop that's at risk in New Jersey," he said. "A number of my friends are in field crops, and they are saying that with the sun baking like it is, leaf crops especially are [inclined to get] sunburned. With no natural rain, peppers will get shoulder burn as they start to mature. Most tomato guys are set up with full drip on their acreage, and as long as they have foliage, the plants should continue to size without a problem."

Mr. Danner added that the forecast called for the possibility of showers in the days ahead. Crops will get a little break from the sun with accompanying cloud cover, but they need some good heavy rain to do well.

"We can't fight nature," he said. "It's inevitable that we'll eventually get appreciable rain, but we need it every week in order to keep harvest costs down. Marketing conditions will be challenging this year, even without the added expense of irrigation."

Lynne Richmond, public information officer for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture in Trenton, agreed that cooler temperatures and rain would be a welcome relief to growers in the state. "We are getting some reports from growers about the problems they are having due to the dry weather and heat," she said. "Traditionally, growers of fresh-market fruits and vegetables do irrigate, but not as much as they're having to this year."

She continued, "However, all of New Jersey's crops this season are very high quality because of the weather we had earlier. The sugar is high, the flavor is great and the crops are abundant."

Ms. Richmond added that if the heat and dry spells are prolonged, farmers could face some issues because of the input costs of irrigation. "There is no way to predict what could happen if this weather persists, but so far, we haven't heard that farmers are facing a major problem," she said. "For farmers who don't have irrigation, it's not quite as good a picture. We are in constant contact with the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, which monitors these situations closely. We are prepared to move swiftly to seek the help of Governor [Chris] Christie in obtaining a natural disaster declaration if necessary. At this point, we're just monitoring the situation, but we'll act quickly if the farmers are in need."

In New York, the situation seems a little better. Jessica Ziehm with the New York Department of Agriculture & Markets in Albany told The Produce News that growers in the state are having a fantastic year so far, despite the high temperatures.

"We're having scattered showers here and there," said Ms. Ziehm. "The heat has so far had minimal effect on our crops. Many, including sweet corn, grapes and a large assortment of vegetable crops, are harvesting earlier than normal this year, and it's been a tremendous growing season so far."

Ms. Ziehm said that a hot spell in April helped optimistic growers get their crops planted early. "For the most part, growers in the state are about two weeks ahead of schedule," she said. "Granted, the first week of July was tough because of the scorching heat, but we're getting an abundant amount of rain at night and in the early mornings."

Later crops, like potatoes and onions, are not yet suffering from the heat and dry weather. Marc Turner, sales manager for the Bushwick Commission Co. Inc. in Farmingdale, NY, said that the company's situation is different from those that grow other field crops.

"Potatoes don't start harvesting until August, so we're in good shape at the moment," said Mr. Turner. "If things stay like this for the next four to six weeks, however, our situation could change. We're definitely irrigating more because in addition to [being] dry, it's super hot. But we're quite a way from harvesting, so we won't speed up or slow down any of our growing practices at this point. Other crops in the state are, we hear, having different effects from the weather, depending on what they are. Cabbage, corn, squash and some other crops were shipping early from New York, but they also need rain and decent temperatures to mature well."

In Connecticut, growers are also contending with the heat spell and seeing minimal problems. Robert Pellegrino, director of marketing for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture in Hartford, said July 13 that farmers were doing OK in the state.

"We're ahead of schedule by about three weeks," he said. "The heat hit us hard the first week of July, but it was the first really hot week we've had. Sweet corn came on very strong, as did blueberries and some other crops. Growers are reporting that they are irrigating, but we are also getting some showers. The western part of the state had some nice rain today, and more is expected in late afternoon and evening. The moisture will be greatly welcomed by farmers."