Mark Hickman climbed out of a hole in the ground where he switched on his irrigation pump for his potatoes and green beans.
“It’s just been an all-around odd year as far as weather,” said Hickman, operations manager and food safety director of Dublin Farms, Horntown, Va.
Summer harvests are later than usual after a cold, wet spring delayed some plantings in the mid-Atlantic states of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
And many of those crops that planted on schedule matured more slowly than typical, a trend that affected much of the mid-Atlantic region, said Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse.
Scuse expects much of the vegetable harvest to be delayed a week to 10 days.
“I don’t think that’s just Delaware. I think that’s across the mid-Atlantic and even into the South. It was a very cool, damp spring,” he said.
May frosts managed to leave many fruit growers unscathed, except for the damage some watermelon growers experienced, but “it was scary though, for our fruit growers, this late in the year,” Scuse said.
Vegetable volumes should be the same, as long as summer doesn’t bring too much rain.
In Delaware, sweet corn under plastic could be ready by mid-June, he said. Snap beans may be ready by the end of June or early July, and cabbage, probably by mid-June.
Scuse expects watermelon to start shipping after mid-July.
Delaware ranks in the nation’s top 10 for sweet corn and watermelon, he said.
Smaller acreages of tomatoes, squash and cucumbers for fresh market will come throughout. Blueberries will follow strawberries in June, and then peaches come by the end of June, early July.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that for the week ending May 31, in Delaware:
- the cantaloupe crop was 75% planted, compared to 61% planted the same time last year and 73% for the five-year average;
- for cucumbers, 47% of the crop was planted, compared to 50% same time last year and 42% for the five-year average;
- for snap beans, 59% of the crop was planted, compared to 54% last year and 51% for the five-year average;
- for sweet corn, 69% was planted, compared to 39% last year and 56% for the five-year average; and
- for watermelon, 78% of the crop was planted, compared to 67% the same time last year and 78% for the five-year average.
Maryland gets its first local sweet corn by the end of June, said Mark Powell, chief of agriculture and seafood marketing at the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
“It looks like plantings are basically on track, although we got an awful lot of rain,” Powell said.
National statistics show that by the week ending May 31, Maryland had:
- 51% of cantaloupes planted compared to 55% the same time last year, and 53% of the five-year average;
- 96% of strawberries were in full bloom, compared to 92% the same time last year; and
- 57% of the tomato crop was planted, compared to 62% the same time last year and 56% for the five-year average.
In Virginia, apples, grapes, peanuts, tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins are top specialty crops, the first four ranking in the top 10 among all U.S. states, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service and the Economic Research Service.
According to the USDA’s 2019 State Agriculture Overview:
- 9,500 acres of apples were harvested, yielding about 20,000 pounds per acre, and excluding processed apples, it was valued at $0.25 per pound for fresh-market apples, resulting in $22.4 million in production value; and
- 5,600 acres of pumpkins were harvested, yielding 18,480 pounds per acre, for a total of 103.5 million pounds, $0.18 per pound, resulting in $16.4 million in production value.
Even though the growing weather was wet and cool until almost the start of June, much of Virginia’s harvests could be essentially on time, said Butch Nottingham, marketing specialist representing the eastern part of the state for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“Prospects look pretty good. We’ve got good moisture,” he said, acknowledging that the late frosts could affect some growers.
By the way it looked at the beginning of June, potatoes should start about June 20 and continue through July, possibly into early August, Nottingham said. Potato acreage dropped by about 500 acres for a total of about 3,000 acres this year, he said, as a large farm purchase transitioned some cropland.
Dublin Farms’ potato crop is 10 days to two weeks behind schedule primarily because of two frosts on April 19 and May 10, Hickman said.
About 300 of 500 acres of white, yellow and red-skinned potatoes burned from the frost, and the stressed potatoes haven’t been sizing up like they usually do since.
Typically, 60% to 70% of Hickman’s crop is the retailer-preferred A size, which is 2¼ to 2¾ inches in diameter.
Some potatoes are turning out grape-sized, which can’t be used. Others are more golf-ball sized, or the B size that’s 1½ to 2¼ inches diameter. Also called creamers, this size is typically used in foodservice for roasting.
“Right now, A size is the only thing with a home, because with restaurants closed, there’s no need for the smaller ones. The only thing moving is what’s sold in grocery stores,” Hickman said.
“We’re a little worried about it, so we’re hopeful things will open quickly, as some places go into Phase 2 of reopening restaurants.”
Hickman likes to start shipping July 1, but it may not be until about July 4, optimistically. Most of the potatoes end up at the terminal markets in Jessup, Md.; New York; Boston and Philadelphia, as well as at repacker facilities.
“We didn’t quite realize how much of our product was ending up at foodservice until now because someone else would buy it, and then it would go to foodservice,” he said.
If foodservice business doesn’t pick up in time, Hickman is considering how the company can modify sorting lines so that after the potatoes are graded, it can pack the B-sized potatoes into 2,000-pound tote bags, which is typically what goes to a repacker.
And he’s looking into directing some to soup processing plants.
“It’s very cheap, but it is a way of getting rid of them. And Bs typically bring a premium because there are less of them. But at least you’re getting something for them rather than nothing,” Hickman said.
Dublin Farms also grows string beans for processing and fresh market for C&E Farms, Cheriton, Va. From there, the green beans will ship direct to retailers and to terminal markets.
The tomato deal ought to crank up July 1 and go through September, possibly into October.
“Although they might be a little late because it was kinda wet getting started,” Nottingham said.
He expects shipping to begin July 8 for cherry and grape tomatoes and July 11 for round and roma tomatoes.
Green beans from one of the largest growers of the commodity on the East Coast, C&E Farms, should be ready by mid-June.
More inland, flat or “donut” peaches should reach their peak in mid-July, most coming from near Charlottesville at Crown Orchard Co., Covesville, Va., the largest donut peach producer in the state and a major player on the East Coast, Nottingham said.