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Early start to Connecticut crops, produce quality termed 'superb'

Most of the eastern United States enjoyed an unusually warm winter and early spring, leading many crops to come on early in 2012. The state of Connecticut has shared in that scenario.

"Things are running ahead of schedule — 10 days to two weeks on our fruit and vegetable crops," Connecticut Commissioner of Agriculture Steven K. Reviczky told The Produce News in an exclusive interview July 11. Strawberries — one of the earlier fruit crops — started early and ended early - and the rest of the state's fruits and vegetables probably will follow suit, barring unexpected weather events as the season progresses.

A variety of items wereReviczkConnecticut Commissioner of Agriculture Steven K. Reviczky in the marketplace when the commissioner offered his comments. "All the summer squashes are in, sweet corn is in," blueberries are in, too, he noted.

Sweet corn is one of the state's signature items (tomatoes are another). "Everybody wants to be in the marketplace by the Fourth of July," he said. "This year was a record for our biggest [corn] grower," who was harvesting corn by the third week in June. "All the typical vegetables are coming in strong. We're in full swing here."

Asked how the quality of the state's vegetables was so far in light of the early harvest, Commissioner Reviczky replied, "Superb. Quality is exceptional. It's just an incredibly good year."

Looking down the road, the commissioner noted that the state's peach crop normally runs from July through September, and its nectarine crop normally runs from August through September. "Generally what I've heard from folks goes back to that week to two weeks ahead of schedule on most things," he said, so those stone fruit crops in all likelihood will follow suit this season, "as the weather has been incredibly favorable to growing conditions."

One of the important elements of the state's produce distribution network is the Connecticut Regional Produce Market, home to both wholesalers and a popular farmers market. Over the last few years or so, a few building projects have been discussed for the market, which is located in the state capital of Hartford. The commissioner provided a little history to what many call, simply, the Hartford market.

"The first building was built in 1948, the second building was built in 1950, and the newest building was built in 1965," he said. "We have some older infrastructure that exists at the market. At this point, what we're doing is taking a fresh look at where we are, what place the market plays in the local food system. We have requested funding to do an overall master plan for the facility. We want to do a specific review and analysis of the infrastructure that's there, taking a look at the buildings from top to bottom: the roofs, the windows, the walls, the water, electrical — all the systems that exist at the market."

He continued, "And we want to develop a vision for where this facility is going to go. So we're looking to do some major temporary repairs, to the roofs especially, in the short term. And then develop a master plan."

One longtime familiar face at the market is gone. Robert Pellegrino, executive director of the market who also served as marketing director of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, retired May 31, and "the department is currently looking to replace him," said Commissioner Reviczky. "So we're going through a process of filling positions here."

As the department looks to fill positions and develop its master plan for the Hartford market, officials will be going on the road to look into what other markets have done in recent years.

"We're going to do a road trip to take a look at new facilities, in Philly, Syracuse — we may go to other facilities - to take a look at other regional markets [to see] what they do in terms of wholesale and retail," said Mr. Reviczky, who was named the state's 19th commissioner of agriculture by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in January 2011. "So it's a pretty exciting time. Governor Malloy has taken a personal interest in the market itself. He has indicated that he's supportive of doing the temporary repairs that are needed there and to give us the money necessary to do the planning that's required to take us to a higher level."

Gov. Malloy also plans to visit the Hartford market, perhaps as early as August. "I don't know the last time that a sitting governor has been to our market," noted Mr. Reviczky.

Farmers markets are another key part of getting fresh produce into the hands of consumers. The state currently has 128 certified farmers markets, although the one at the Hartford market is the only one that the Connecticut Department of Agriculture "actually runs," according to the commissioner.

"Part of what our vision is," he said, "is to retool that farmers market. We're in the process now of rethinking how we brand and market the farmers market at the regional market. It's still a very vital market, but we think it's location in the capital city at the intersection of Interstates 91 and 84 — with the population that we have around the location of the market - that we can do a better job."

Noting that 125 farmers still participate in the farmers market in Hartford, he added, "And that's one of our missions: to ratchet up the viability of that market. I think we can do better."

With a nod to the future of the Hartford market, Commissioner Reviczky concluded, "Our infrastructure is tired. It was designed for a different era. It served its purpose well over time. But it's a new day. We've got to shift gears and more forward. And that's what our plan is."