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HARTFORD, CT — What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, the eastern United States was experiencing a cool and rainy spring that had most crops running a bit later than usual. By contrast, the region this year has been dealing with a dry and warmer-than-usual spring and early summer which has brought crops on a good week or two later than usual.

As Connecticut Commissioner of Agriculture F. Philip Prelli put it simply, "Every year's a little different."

Looking at this year’s local deal, Mr. Prelli told The Produce News July 15, “Strawberries ended two weeks earlier than normal, and blueberries were at their peak earlier. And we had corn coming in before even July 4, which was surprising. So it’s a very strong beginning of our season. The farmers have been ahead of the curve, which is always a plus, because [the crops] are in a high-price time period.”

He added, “We’re already harvesting peaches this year. We’re happy about that also.” He expected the state’s nectarine and plum crops to arrive “probably by the end of July.”

The state’s growers are also using hoop houses and hydroponic growing methods more and more to allow them to harvest some items earlier to meet consumer demand. Growers are also continuing to diversify their crops, growing for example more ethnic vegetables to meet consumers’ changing demands, the commissioner noted.

The Connecticut Regional Produce Market in Hartford is a major hub in the distribution of the state’s many produce crops. In that regard, the commissioner noted that one of the market’s longtime wholesale companies, M&M Produce Inc., was expected to begin building a new facility this fall across from its current location. He also mentioned that another major distributor at the Hartford market, FreshPoint Connecticut, was possibly looking to expand as well.

“All the companies [at the market] are realizing that they need to be compliant with all the new food safety regulations and are asking themselves if they can meet the requirements in an older building,” said Commissioner Prelli. “That’s a concern for us.”

Noting that the Hartford market was built back in the early 1950s, Mr. Prelli continued: “So we need to modernize and we need to continue to move forward, and we as a market understand that.”

Farmers markets are another key venue used to distribute fresh produce to consumers around the state. There are about 125 farmers markets located throughout the Nutmeg State. “We’re very happy with that number and with the ability to get local product out within our state,” said Mr. Prelli.

“The whole local movement is so strong that people are willing to go to the farmers markets and are willing to spend a little extra because they know where their food is coming from,” he continued. “So we’ve seen growth in that area even though we were in a recession. So once we come out of the recession, we’re going to see even greater growth in that area.”

One of the state’s major farmers markets is located within the Hartford market. There have been discussions the last few years about building a larger, modern farmers market there, although nothing has come to pass. But that may be changing.

“We had a federal grant to plan out a new farmers market, and have the new drawings for that, and we’re talking to our farmers now about what they’d like to see from the conceptual drawings,” said Mr. Prelli. “We’re very excited about that because we think it will help bring people in and make it attractive.”

The commissioner added that a new farmers market was “going to take state money, and with the budget concerns, that’s going to be a while before we can get the money to move forward on that.” But he added with enthusiasm, “We’ve got the designs, we’re talking to the farmers, we need to start moving on the next phase. The concept is there, and we’re excited about it.”

Commenting on the locally grown trend that has swept up many parts of the nation, Commissioner Prelli stated, “We’re seeing more and more, both within our wholesale operations as well as within the farmer direct sales to retail outlets, the growth of stores wanting to have locally produced produce because the clients are coming in asking for it. I think people really care about where their food is coming from. The freshness has always been a selling point, but now the concern of 'we don’t know where this comes from’ is helping our farmers,” especially those in the smaller states.

(For more on Connecticut, see the Aug. 2, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)