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Local farmers worry over warm weather

Amanda Marsh • Mar 24, 2012 at 9:27 PM

While most locals have enjoyed the pleasantly mild temperatures, farmers have agonized over each warm, sunny day.

“You have to balance the risk and the reward,” said Dominick Haynes, a 14-year-old who grows his own produce to sell at the Jonesborough Farmers Market.

The arrival of an early spring has been a temptation for local growers eager to get their spring crops in the ground just a little bit sooner than normal. Although he was skeptical, Dominick went ahead and planted tomatoes in his backyard garden, which he normally doesn’t do until late April.

“We thought, if it’s going to stay warm, we’ll try to take advantage of it,” he said.

When the Jonesborough Farmers Market opens in May, Dominick says he’d like to have a good amount of leeks, radishes, beets and carrots for sale.

Larry Benfield, lot manager at the Johnson City Farmers Market, is counting on selling broccoli, cabbage and lettuce at the market opening. He’s been a little more reluctant to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather.

“I’ve been surprised by the whole winter,” he said. “I was just afraid to get started there for a while because I was afraid it would freeze. I think I’m OK with the stuff I have out now. It (a freeze) won’t bother it too much.”

Larry was daring enough to put out his spring crops a couple of weeks early, but he’s not willing to take any big risks.

“I think it will be better than usual in May,” he said of the produce that’s already taken root in his garden on Cherokee Road. “I heard some people have beans out, but I’m not going to try that yet.”

Shirley Garst of Valley Creek Farms is also taking a somewhat conservative approach to the growing season. Red and kennebec potatoes are in the ground and she’s got a few tomato plants growing in a small water bed.

“I know there’s a lot of people in a hurry to get things in the ground because it is so warm, but it is a worry,” said Shirley, who resides in Sulphur Springs. “There have been times that we’ve had some snow storms in April.”

With thoughts of a heavy freeze or a few inches of snow lingering in the back of her mind, Shirley says she’s “trying not to go overboard and watch everything come up and then a big storm come and kill it all off.”

Shirley and her son, Andrew, are depending on a large number of onion and lettuce sales at the Jonesborough Farmers Market. They already have a string of loyal customers who continue to order their range-free eggs from the online winter farmer’s market.

Shirley says taking a chance on harvesting early produce is less desirable to her because of the “outrageous seed prices.” She’s also concerned that the abnormal seasons will cause an increase in insects.

“I think that will be a problem this summer,” she said.

Valley Creek Farms isn’t organic, but Shirley says they try to use the least amount of chemicals as possible, which can be difficult when insects invade their crops.

Jess Price, vice president of the board of directors for the Johnson City Farmers Market, isn’t as nervous about a potential bug problem.

“There’s always enough bugs,” said Jess, who owns a farm in Carter County. “If it don’t get cold and kill stuff, I believe we’ll be all right. Most of the early crops will be OK.”

Jess and his wife, Phyllis, have planted lettuce, onions and greens at their normal time, but say the produce will probably grow faster since the ground is warm.

All the speculation is getting customers excited about another season of local, fresh produce available at the area farmers markets.

Blair Eldred, board of directors president for the Johnson City Farmers Market, says they’re expecting about 100 vendors this summer. The Johnson City market, located in the city-owned parking lot at South Roan Street and West State of Franklin Road, will follow a winter schedule through April and will be open the first and third Saturdays of the month from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Regular Wednesday and Saturday hours from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. will resume in May.

The Jonesborough Farmers Market also is selling items on a winter schedule, but it is being done online. Each week, growers post items they have for sale at http://jonesborough.locallygrown.net. Customers can make their selections and pick up the items at the Jonesborough Visitors Center on Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m.

“It’s a nice way to have an off-season market without wondering who’s going to come,” said Karen Childress, a manager of the Jonesborough Farmers Market.

The online market will continue until it moves into the courthouse square, just off Main Street, in May. The outdoor hours will be 8 a.m. to noon.

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