Valley farmers digging in for growing season

By Kalea Hall

Mud is a sure sign that spring – and the growing season – is here.

“The growing season is upon us in that strawberries will bloom soon, early season vegetables that can withstand cold temperatures are in the ground, crops are growing in greenhouses, and farmers have begun field preparation for planting,” said Eric Barrett, extension educator at Ohio State University Extension Office of Mahoning County.

It’s an exciting time for farmers, the people who enjoy their crops and the farm dogs who get to greet guests ready to pick fresh strawberries and sweet corn or bite into a peach.

Jackson the goldendoodle happily trots through the greenhouses at Catalpa Grove Farm off state Route 14 in Columbiana.

“At this time you are usually optimistic,” said Craig Mercer, co-owner of Catalpa.

Mercer and other area farmers are cautiously optimistic about the weather. They know there could still be a frost in April and at certain temperatures, their crops are affected.

“You don’t know,” Mercer said. “You could have a hail storm tomorrow.”

Eric Wilhelm, chief meteorologist for 21 WFMJ-TV, said the last frost or freeze for the area is expected to have occurred Saturday night or this morning.

“It’s just a chance,” he said. “It could go down to freezing briefly. It would be pretty low impact. Other than that, we should be good for the rest of the month.”

On average, the date of the last spring freeze is April 28, Wilhelm said.

A freeze at Catalpa wouldn’t affect the farm much. The 146-acre farm has strawberries, corn, tomatoes, peppers and other crops. Mercer said there could be some strawberry damage from a frost, but he’s more concerned with the warmer winter the area had bringing in insects that will harm his crops.

“There’s a lot of insects that come in from Florida that we don’t have,” Mercer said. “A prime example is the flea beetle. Normally, if you have a cold winter those fleas don’t survive. We will be watching the sweet corn.”

While the snowfall was about average, the temperatures this winter were above average, Wilhelm said.

“Farmers had to start applying their sprays earlier because of that warm-up,” Barrett said.

Down the street from Catalpa is the Huffman Fruit Farm on Lisbon Road in Salem, where the fear of frost is a bit more serious because of the acres of orchards there.

“The main thing is the season is about two weeks early, which is always a fear frost will come,” said John Huffman, farm co-owner.

Huffman is mostly concerned about his apple crop since some varieties are already almost to full bloom.

“Once the blossoms open up they can only take 28 to 29 degrees,” Huffman said.

Last year, the Huffman farm only had about a half-crop of apples because a lot of them froze.

“We don’t like ups and downs in temperature,” Huffman said. “It gets the crops starting to grow.”

Once a crop starts to grow before the cool weather has gone, that leads it open to more of a chance it could be harmed.

“After May 10, you usually don’t get a frost that hurts the tree fruit,” Huffman said.

The apple crop is the biggest crop for the 90-acre farm. Peppers, peaches, tomatoes and other crops are also grown here.

At Huffman’s, workers have started to pick asparagus, and come June, they will get ready for strawberry-picking. Peach-picking starts in July. Apple-picking hits hard in September.

“The trend lately is the peach and apple bloom is coming early,” Huffman said. “That doesn’t mean that frost is over with.”

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