‘Normal’ spring catching some by surprise

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 140 views 

Drought, late freezes and other crazy weather (or not so crazy at it turns out) weather is already having an effect on local farmer’s markets.

Coordinators and farmers alike hope that they will still have a successful year despite the weather seeming to fight against that notion.

“We’re hoping that we have a very good year,” said Kimberly Scott from the Rogers Farmer’s Market, which is moving one block closer to downtown this year. “We met with the farmers in February and everyone had high hopes for this year but with the freeze (this week) coming on, we are a little worried about the fruit.”

Scott said that some of the farmers irrigate, others do not so the drought from last summer has mixed effects. The number of Rogers’ vendors varies with the season because some vendors only sell one type of produce and are available only when that produce is in season, Scott said. By the height of the growing season the Rogers Farmer’s Market averages close to 50 vendors.

Nicki McNelly, coordinator for the Bentonville Farmer’s Market, said that several of her farmers would not be back this year because of the drought.

“It’s a rebuilding year for them,” she said. “But we have also accepted several new applicants this year.”

Last year the Bentonville market averaged about 60 vendors and this year it expects to average 65. McNelly said several of her farmers have also express a little concern about the potential for a freeze.

“The frost-free date this year is April 22, so it’s been a typical spring for us,” she said.

The closer to normal spring compared to previous years means shoppers can expect many more cool weather crops although some farmers with greenhouses will have some summer vegetables.

The fact that the last two seasons were early springs followed by somewhat mild winters has changed some people’s perceptions of what should be available when, several farmer’s market coordinators agreed.

“Once we explain the seasons and how (the crops) are grown, people understand more,” McNelly said. “We are so used to getting what we want when we want it. People will get used to eating on a local scale and will expect things when they are in season.”

Lori Boatright, general manager of the Fayetteville Farmer’s Market, which is celebrating its 40th year, agreed that the strange weather in recent years seems to have reset some people’s expectations. The Fayetteville market stays around 120 vendors each year, Boatright said.

“The last two years we had things we don’t normally see until May or June,” she said. “It really does change the perceptions.”

This year’s spring is coming in closer to a more traditional time for the region and might be a little late if there are freezes at the end of April and early May.

“I think we’re about a month behind normal,” she said in reference to produce that is usually available. “Last year we were a month ahead.”

The drought last year killed many fruit trees, which will also reduce some availability because some farmers need to replant, she said. Prices and full availability won’t be known until the fruit is harvested, she said.

Although conditions are still dry, the drought is improving, especially with recent rains.
“The pond levels are coming up,” she said. “Many of our farmers use that to irrigate. If that continues they will be able to irrigate (and crops will be better).”

Chuck Rutherford of Rutherford Farms is one of the vendors at the Fayetteville Farmer’s Market. He said many of his crops survived the drought because he was “constantly watering.”

However, there’s a major difference in rain water and tap water when it comes to quality for plants, he said. Plants thrive better on natural rain water than treated water. He was at the market April 20 selling strawberry plants from last year that have already had a chance to grow in a pot. He encourages people to not plant before May 1.

“Some people I know planted already and they are having to replant (because the plants died),” he said. “At the big box stores they start putting out plants on the first warm day of the season and people then have to go back to those stores to rebuy plants once they die (when it gets cold again).”

Farmers are used to having to deal with weather fluctuations affecting their productivity from year to year, she said.

“Farmers are the ultimate gamblers,” Boatright said.

When the farmers are affected, so are the farmer’s markets. Each local market operates a different kind of business model although there are some similarities.

At the Bentonville market, vendors are charged an $8 per day booth fee plus a 5% commission, McNelly said.

The Rogers and Fayetteville markets have a membership program that has a minimum fee plus a small commission on each day’s sale that they are at market (some markets have more than one day they are open and more than one location). The commissions go toward paying staff and other administrative costs for the market.

“We’re at the mercy of the weather,” Scott said, adding that the commissions vary with the weather and season. A day’s commissions usually start at $100 as a bare minimum from all the vendors but is usually more.

The Fayetteville Farmer’s Market opened April 6 and has battled cooler temperatures since opening. The Rogers and Bentonville markets opened April 27 – a day when it rained.