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VOL. 127 | NO. 148 | Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Business as Usual

Farmers markets weathering record drought, high temperatures

By Aisling Maki

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Despite a summer of unusually high temperatures and a nationwide drought that’s been called the worst the U.S. has seen in 25 years, Memphis’ farmers markets have been thriving, according to many participants.

Kayla Yarbrough of Tims Family Farms in Ripley sells tomatoes to Bearnie Crutcher and family at the farmers market at the Memphis Botanic Garden.  

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

It seems this season it pays to be the little guy.

Due to steep temperatures and dry soil, nearly a third of the nation’s corn crop has shown signs of damage.

That, in turn, has driven up the price of processed foods, such as soft drinks and cereals that contain some form of corn ingredients, The Associated Press has reported.

The maturity of the cotton crops has been delayed due to low rainfall, yielding smaller-than-usual plants. And adding to farmers’ frustrations are low cotton trading prices and increased production costs related to oil and fertilizer prices and rising seed prices stemming from technological intervention in seed varieties.

But for the small, local grower – the kind who provides things like berries, tomatoes and okra to local farmers markets – overall it’s been a stable season.

One reason may be a diversity of crops, and another may be that it’s easier to irrigate a smaller area of land, meaning many small growers were more prepared for drought.

“If they don’t have irrigation, they’re in a dry year,” said Mark Hoggard, who manages the farmers market at the Agricenter International, 7777 Walnut Grove Road. “It’s a lot easier to even use a water hose and a sprinkler to do a couple of acres. There are ways to get water to smaller areas.”

Hoggard said that because of hot, dry conditions, some farmers have had less product to sell.

That especially applies to what he calls the “weekend farmers,” who don’t depend solely on farming for their livelihood and are thus less likely to invest in irrigation systems.

But Hoggard said that overall it’s been business as usual at the market this season and customer flow has remained steady.

At the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market, 1000 S. Cooper St., board chairman Chris Ramezanpour said the market has been “doing better this year than we’ve ever done. … We’re not going to let the weather get in the way.”

Farmer John Freeman takes cash for his blueberries and blackberries from Green Frog in Crockett County during the farmers market at the Memphis Botanic Garden.

He said the market continues to see a variety of locally produced fruits, vegetables and meats.

By and large, the drought and high temperatures that have devastated crops across the nation seem to have had little impact on the output of the market’s vendors – many who, in addition to having irrigation systems in place, grow their plants in greenhouses and hoop houses, which provide some protection.

“It depends on how drought-ready the farmers are. … Our farmers don’t have thousands of acres,” Ramezanpour said. “I think our largest farmer has just under 100 acres, but typically I think most of the rest are much smaller than that, with about 15 to 20 acres. They’re not experiencing the same impact.”

Catherine Neal, manager at Urban Farms Market, 2977 Broad Ave. – which sells items from both regional growers and from Urban Farms – an affiliated three-acre farm located in a nearby residential area of Binghampton – said it’s been an especially fruitful season for tomatoes and okra.

She says she’s largely been able to find what customers are requesting, even corn; she recently received 14 crates of sweet corn from a farmer in the Missouri bootheel.

The only exception has been strawberries and peaches, which saw an early season this year, the result of a mild winter.

Jones Orchard, a third-generation family-owned, 600-acre farm in Millington, sells produce at more than half a dozen local farmers markets, including Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market and the Agricenter International Farmers’ Market.

“It does look like the farmers markets were up slightly this year compared to last year,” said owner Henry Jones, who attributes the growth to increased support for smaller farmers and more demand for fresh, local food.

Jones said his fruit came up early; Jones Orchard started picking strawberries in March and peaches in April this year. He said the dry year made it an especially good one for strawberries, which yielded more fruit that usual, and improved the quality of the peaches.

But because they grew early, Jones said he’s almost out of fresh peaches, which have been in high demand and are now hard to find.

Jones is now preparing for fall and starting to focus on his annual pumpkin crop and corn maze, which he said could benefit from a little more rain.

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