As crops change, farmers look ahead

Oct. 27, 2013 @ 11:46 AM

At this point in the fall, a scene at the Durham Farmers’ Market might look a little something like this: piles of orange, white, and blue pumpkins of all shapes and sizes on one side of the aisle and mountains of assorted greens varieties stacked on farmers tables on the other side of the aisle. 

Tucked in between these beautiful displays are special fall treats that we wait for all summer such as carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, fennel and ginger. In this fall abundance, you may not realize that local farmers are thinking about planting their strawberry and garlic crops.

Most annual vegetable crops are planted in several successive plantings throughout a growing season.  For example, in the spring and fall, farmers plant radishes, arugula, and lettuce every two weeks to ensure regular harvests throughout the growing season. In the summer, farmers plant several successive plantings of tomatoes, squash and beans to make sure there is a good supply all summer long. Garlic and strawberries are unique because they are one-time planting crops. It is important that they are planted at the right time to ensure they are ready for their relatively short harvest seasons.

In late September and early October, farmers in the Piedmont of North Carolina are working hard to get their strawberry plants in the ground. The strawberry plants need to have their roots well established before the first frost, which will likely happen this week. Once the plants are established in the field, they will easily overwinter and start producing flowers and fruit in the springtime as temperatures warm up.

Garlic has an even longer growing season than strawberries. For garlic to fully mature, it takes about nine months. In late October and early November, farmers till their fields and plant their seed garlic --  a garlic seed is a clove of garlic. Once it is planted, the garlic field will be heavily mulched so that it doesn’t start sprouting too early in the winter. By early spring, farmers can start to harvest baby garlic plants, which are also known as green garlic or garlic scallions. As the temperatures warm, the garlic plants begin to divide into cloves and by June and July, full heads of garlic have formed from the garlic cloves that were planted many months ago.

So, while we as consumers are enjoying the change of season from summer to fall crops, our farmers are several steps ahead of us. They are already thinking about future harvests that are many months away.

Erin Kauffman is market manager of the Durham Farmers’ Market.