Waiting on the Weather

From onions to asparagus, winter's late grasp has slowed growth of area produce.



With the sun and the day getting old with the evening, workers harvest a field of onions along Stateline Road. June 29, 2007

A cold winter started early and held on for all it was worth this year. And weather, good or bad, affects agriculture, but sometimes you just have to wait and hope for the best.

"So far, so good," said Kathy Fry-Trommald, director of marketing for the Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.

Quality looks good, but getting the produce this year will take patience.

"Everything's going to be late," said Thayne Stone, national marketing director at Walla Walla Gardeners Association. "We just don't have the ground thermal units. This April was the coldest since they've kept records. And for May, there's usually about a 70 degree average and what has it been so far? Consistently in the low 50s."

This means the ground hasn't had a chance to warm up enough for the crops to grow at their regular pace.

"The asparagus is slow," Stone said.

If it has the right heat, asparagus will grow fast enough it can be cut twice a day.

"Asparagus is a good indicator of the heat," Stone said. "It's certainly an odd year. I've never seen it so cool for so long. But it's certainly no disaster. But we don't know what's going to happen; we'll see at the end of the season. The crops may just produce less. The sweets are especially sensitive to sudden changes and there's a big worry about hail."

No one knows what will happen until growers get farther along with their crops.

If the heat comes on quickly, the asparagus will grow faster and peak for the season. Stone estimates asparagus will run through June.

Although the production is slow or intermittent, the quality is good.

"The biggest thing is that will create a gap in production, it affects sales," Stone said

Because Walla Walla Gardeners employs people all year, the impact is also felt by employees on the packing line and other jobs, working fewer hours from February until now.

Last year was cold with delays for agriculture then, too.

According to Stone, crops were late in 2010 and nursery stock was affected, not enough was produced.

"It's a difficult start to the year but we've been here before," he said.

What is key to plant growth is ground thermal units, the warmth of the soil.

"If the overnight temperatures stay moderate for five to seven days, a good solid week, then the growth will just take off," Stone said.

This ground warming in the overnight hours is crucial to growth in the crops. There are always issues and worries growing fresh produce, but great successes as well.

"But you never know. Growers have thought the crop was ruined and it turned out perfect."

Last year with some of the late freezes, Stone said some of the growers lost significant portions of their crops.

"It affects everybody," he said.

One of the good parts of this season is the price for the asparagus that does come in.

"If you can produce it, the price is good," he said.

However this is always offset by the costs of production in the first place and affected by the weather conditions.

This year there has been late season snow in the Blue Mountains, Washington Cascades, and in areas of Colorado and California.

"And it's raining everywhere," Stone said. "California has been affected, Texas is OK, I don't know about Georgia. We're just waiting to see what happens. It's the overall crop health issues." Growers have concerns about a rapid switch to hot weather, with storms and hail as a result.

Another big factor is: location, location, location -- as it is for other businesses.

Where you plant matters because there are different micro climates with different soils.

According to Stone, some of the same plants in different environments show very different results, some plants are fine, others are not.

But overall, the crops are about 10 days to two weeks behind. "Welcome to farming," he said. "There is a degree of luck to it. You don't have complete control of your environment. Even great farmers can be ruined by Mother Nature."

Right now sweet onion growers fear hail, but a lot of rain and then sudden change to very hot would be hard on the crop as well.

Sweet onions like gradual changes.

If the rain-to-high-heat scenario plays out, then growers have to spray for mold.

Because of the rise in oil prices, fuel costs are up, as are the costs for petroleum-based products for farming such as fertilizer, insecticides and soil conditioners.

Although late, so far things look good for the onion crops.

"The little baby Walla Wallas, the salad onions are beautiful," he said.

"It's our fourth cold, wet, late spring in a row," said Ron Klicker, owner of Klicker's Antique & Fruit Store. "It's going to be mid-June before strawberries start, about the same as last year. I just think we're in a different seven-year weather cycle, now we're just getting used to the crops being late. It's been under the 55-60 degree range, last night it was 39-40 degrees."

According to Klicker the yield has been somewhat lower than conventional years. But the late start doesn't indicate a later close, just less available time for employment and production.

"It ends just as quickly, we have about two to three weeks of producing. Everybody loses," Klicker said. "You can't control the weather. There's nothing you can do except just cry."

In spite of understandable concerns, to be in agriculture you have to be optimistic and patient. The quality of the crop remains to be seen, according to Klicker. But he's confident it will be close to normal.

"We have the same varieties and the same ground," he said. "This year's asparagus is the best I've ever had, sweet and mild. It just grew very slowly." The ground is still cold and it takes time to build the heat units. But live and learn.

"Because of the ground temperatures, this year everyone has planted later rather than just doing it the same as we always do. Last year so many had the seed just rot in the ground. You have to learn as you go along. It's cold--don't put it in as early."

"We expect to have every kind of fruit you can imagine, just two weeks late," Klicker said. "Strawberries are perennials, with about a four year life span. We've had two or three really harsh winters, but strawberries are fairly hardy when they are dormant in the ground." But he said most growers have suffered some damage especially because of frigid cold in November. "The grapes were hit hard, the cane berries, anything with a woody stalk. Treefruit was hit, some of the apples were completely frozen."

But because of resilient growers and employees the United States has the most bountiful, safe food supply in the world. "We will never go without," Klicker said. "And even if you hear about a shortage, it doesn't equate to much higher prices. The consumer isn't being gouged. I've read statistics the world grows enough for 12 billion people and there's only six billion. That's over production."

Dennis Sundberg, controller at Broetje Orchards said at this point they are holding their own, waiting to see what type of damage was done and how much of the orchard might be affected.

"I'm hearing there's a lot of damage by the look of the buds," he said. "The cold nailed them early in the fall, the trees were weakened and then it got them again in the spring.

"But it's hard to make any projections, the trees sometimes really surprise you, they can pull out of it just fine."

But it certainly has been challenging.

In addition to possible damage to the trees from the cold, there are more obstacles this year.

"They haven't been able to spray, there's been too much wind and rain. And the bees can't work if it's cold and raining."

This poses more challenges for the employees as well, potentially reducing work available and incomes. Sundberg said the employees have been able to do other kinds of work, like pruning and thinning.

"We try to keep them working," he said. "We have a lot of good people out there."

At the Washington State University Cooperative Extension Office, Agent Debbie Williams agreed that everything is behind schedule.

"There's more rust in the wheat," she said. "Some usually spray once, now it may be once, twice or three times depending on the area. Although our area is not as bad as the Palouse, it was colder and they are farther behind."

She has also heard that in the vineyards, some vines have died and there are fewer grapes on the vines.

"Asparagus is also behind but does that mean that in the end it will all come on too fast?" she said. "Right now everyone is concerned and watching to see the extent that the cold has affected the crops."

"Everything's behind," agreed Beth-Aimee McGuire, executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Farmers Market. "People are really taking precautions, taking their sweet time about planting because of last year's late freeze."

According to McGuire plenty of tomatoes froze last year, as well as in one case a planting of squash only three of 45 plants survived. Growers are cautious, planting later and optimistic about the results.

"Vendors and customers are showing up and are very supportive. There are a lot of bedding plants and salad greens going out right now. We're just behind. But it's definitely a good year at the market so far," McGuire said.


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