Farmers tired of rain, ready for sun

Published 10:04 pm Monday, March 26, 2018

Al Whitener’s Suffolk farm was at the mercy of yet another bout of rain on March 20. He zipped up his rain jacket when the rain let up in the late morning to take a look at his garlic in the fields.

He said the weather last year was slightly warmer, drier and just plain more cooperative than 2018’s frustrations thus far.

“We definitely didn’t have five nor’easters, that’s for sure,” he said.

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The good news is that Whitener and his family typically spend February and March modifying and maintaining equipment, not planting new crops. He remained optimistic about the season ahead as long as everything dries up.

“If this continues, then the garlic could rot in the ground,” he said. “But I’ll worry about that if we get to six nor’easters.”

Whitener’s farm plants about 3,000 elephant garlic crops in the fall. Some of the garlic will be harvested in late April or early May for companies like Seasonal Roots in Richmond to make pesto. The rest of the crops will come out of the ground in late June, Whitener said.

The Whiteners will also harvest more than 50 pounds of asparagus daily this spring. These are sold to local buyers like Harper’s Table on Main Street and the Bennett’s Creek Farm Market.

Whitener said his late father, Arthur, taught him to find the niche crops to grow, or in his words, “find the darkness in the market and put a light on it.”

“What’s nice about garlic and asparagus is that there are a few people that grow it at home, but not enough to eat,” he said. “People that want elephant garlic would rather buy it than grow it.”

Whitener’s farm is one of 44,800 in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Virginia agriculture counts for $70 billion annually and provides more than 334,000 jobs.

In 2016, agriculture and forestry exports were valued at $2.77 billion, and accounted for more than half of containerized exports by volume moving through the Port of Virginia, according to VDACS.

“Virginia’s agricultural production is one of the most diverse in the nation,” according to vdacs.virginia.gov. “Many Virginia commodities and products rank in the top 10 among all U.S. states.”

Shelley Barlow, who farms in the Chuckatuck area, is planning to plant corn in early- to mid-April, weather permitting.

“Once again, it depends on when the weather changes and it gets warm enough,” Barlow said in a phone interview.

Their cotton will be planted in the ground somewhere around late April and early May, then the soybeans, which rank as the sixth-most profitable farm commodity in Virginia, according to 2016 data provided by USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service and Economic Research Service.

Unfortunately, the rain has caused a slight delay in preparations.

“We’re behind, but we’re not terribly behind,” Barlow said. “There are things that we would normally be doing but can’t because it’s so wet, but it’s not critical at this point.”

The Neighborhood Harvest on Turlington Road has the advantage of keeping its hydroponically-grown crops in greenhouses. Hydroponics allow plants to grow without soil using water with added mineral nutrients.

They’ve got rainbow Swiss chard, lemon sorrel with a citrus taste and Tatsoi, an Asian alternative to spinach.

“We don’t grow spinach in our greenhouse, because the temperature it requires would kill our other plants, so we have Tatsoi,” sales and events coordinator Summer Mathis said in a phone interview. “It’s actually a bit more nutritious than spinach, and it doesn’t wilt.”

Business is good for the Neighborhood Harvest. Their main offices are expected to be relocated to a new space on Carolina Road with another 25,000-square-foot greenhouse, in addition to the 16,000-square-foot greenhouse at the Turlington Road location, Mathis said.

They’re also preparing another in Smithfield to grow tomatoes and cucumbers.

“We have a little over 6,000 customers now and are just pushing out orders every week,” she said.

Their only concern is getting enough sunlight between the cloudy days that will hopefully lead to better weather this spring.

“So far it’s working with us. We get some (sunlight) here and there every week,” she said. “It’s not holding us back, but we’re certainly ready for the spring and summer to really get here.”