Kentucky growers were hoping to take advantage of a big spike in demand this year until a cool and wet spring delayed plantings for some growers by as much as a month.
Several experts said growing conditions were a setback for some crops, while they helped nurture greens like cabbage and lettuce. In the end, however, it is more than weather that will hold Kentucky back from reaching its distribution potential this year.
“Pretty much all of your early spring crops were real nice this year because of plentiful rainfall and mild temperatures,” said Bob Perry, project manager and chef at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Lexington, Ky., who explained Kentucky had suffered through two years of drought before this year’s wet weather.
Tim Woods, extension professor in agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky, said there is no question it was a wet spring, and most growers are well behind schedule.
“Last year, at least for annual vegetables, we were somewhere around 8,000-9,000 acres at this point. We might be 5,000-7,000 acres now, whereas they wanted to be in the 10,000-12,000 range,” he said.
Woods said the state can grow a wide range of crops from tomatoes, peppers and berries to melons, sweet corn and fruit trees, including apples and peaches. He added fruit trees are coming off a record year in 2008 following a frost the year before.
High interest in fall crops include pumpkins and Indian corn that fit well into Kentucky’s strong direct marketing business.
“One of the advantages we have is we have plenty of water and relatively warm growing conditions,” he said. “That doesn’t lend itself well to organic because there are lots of insects and disease problems, but we can grow conventionally almost anything.”
Bill Best, owner of Best Family Farms, Berea, Ky., grower of heirloom tomatoes and green beans since 1965, said everybody is behind because of the wet weather, unless they are using high tunnels.
“The high tunnel is in good shape,” Best said of his own structure, which acts like a greenhouse except that crops are planted directly in the ground.
Best said the only challenge to growing tomatoes in high tunnels is the high moisture levels that build in the intensive growing condition. Best said he has seven rows of tomato plants in one high tunnel and nine rows in another, and he is using exhaust fans to reduce moisture levels.
Aside from high tunnel tomato growers, he believes some farmers are close to a month behind with tomatoes, causing wholesale prices to skyrocket.
“The wet spring did delay some of the guys out there to work the ground and get the plastic laid,” said Brian Knott, president of Grow Farms, Louisville, Ky., who said aside from an isolated hailstorm that damaged one of his grower’s tomatoes, everything in Kentucky is now OK.
Perry went so far as to call Kentucky crop a “banner year so far.”
“The weather has been really strange and that has been a good thing,” he said. “It was a very cool and wet spring, and for the farmers markets, the lettuce has been outstanding.”
Perry said the conditions also made for “really good” strawberries and asparagus, a fact that he has noticed as a twice-weekly visitor to farmers markets as a writer for a weekly farmers market report and radio host discussing produce and cooking tips on a local public radio station.
“All the early spring crops have just been phenomenal,” he said.
At a January meeting with producers from around the state, Woods noticed that an entire lineup of buyers was coming up far short of what they needed.
“Most of our folks are pretty small-scale operations,” he said, adding that more than 90% of growers have farms of 20 acres or less, ideal for their focus on roadside, on-farm retailing or produce auctions but not for big retail distribution.
Woods said just in the past four years, three large co-ops that had acted as intermediaries between farmer and retailer have gone out of business. He added that many Kentucky farmers simply do not have a large enough or consistent enough volume to provide long-term merchandising for retailers across all of their stores.
Nonetheless, Woods said that in a recent survey, more than half of respondents said they wanted to expand their operation over the next three years.
“Our folks seem to be bullish,” he said.
Perry said Kentucky’s advantage lies in its window for lettuce and cabbage in late May and early June.
“We discovered a few years ago that we have a window here for lettuce, when it’s about the same time that the lettuce both in Florida and California have rain and lettuce prices go way up,” he said. “We’ve got some regional and some national stuff, and we’re definitely increasing both.”
Woods said failure of large co-ops has led to the increase in produce auction houses, which provide limitations to retail distribution.
“We have five active ones and 400 to 500 growers selling through those produce actions,” he said.
Woods also said that with only 13,000 total acres of fruit and vegetables and an expected uptick to 15,000 acres this year, Kentucky is not a huge player compared to big produce states. However, he explained that doesn’t mean Kentucky growers can’t expand if they had the necessary infrastructure.
“What we have is just a spike in demand for this local produce but it is a very different business model for our growers to change their production and marketing of produce,” he said. “With three of these major vegetable cooperatives going out of business, they really don’t have large scale growers or suppliers that they can work through to get stuff plugged into their supply chain.”
Woods said big retailers like Kroger and Mejia grocery stores recognize the seasonality of local produce deals and are willing to pay fair prices, but creating new relationships requires a supplier who has the packing, grading, cooling and shipping facilities to bring farm fresh produce to retailer shelves.