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THE WINTER THAT WASN’T
Mark Toigo

It’s official. The National Weather Service has determined that the winter of 2011 – 2012 is Washington’s warmest on record. To those in the DC area, mild temperatures meant light sweater weather and not having to bundle up for year round farmers’ markets. But to our Chesapeake Bay region fruit growers, it meant lots of worries about what the weather was doing to their trees.

To find out how the mild winter has affected farmers and to learn what shoppers can expect to find at market this Spring, FRESHFARM Markets Co-Executive Director Ann Yonkers talked to Mark Toigo of Toigo Orchards. Mark and his family grow apricots, apples, peaches, plums, cherries and nectarines as well as field fruit such as raspberries and strawberries on their 400 acre farm in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. Toigo Orchards sells at 4 FRESHFARM Markets: Dupont Circle, By the White House, Penn Quarter, and Crystal City.

Tell me how this warm weather has affected the trees and the farm?
While Shippensburg is north of DC and had slightly cooler temperatures, it was the warmest weather I can remember. It wasn’t good for much, but operationally it had some good effects. We could catch up on all the seasonal farm work such as pruning the trees. Our crew was happy because they kept working and earning money all winter. Without a snowfall, we had no trouble getting into the orchards and taking care of the trees.

It’s so rare to be able to get through the pruning process systematically due to cold, rain, mud and bitter conditions. Pruning is usually a rush job in early spring because of the conditions. We prune the trees to open them up to sunshine and air circulation. This promotes healthy trees, less subject to a myriad of diseases and to insect damage. Pruning also promotes healthy fruit set and beautiful large fruit that our customers love at farmers’ markets.

What happens to the trees when you don’t have a real winter?
The trees never go into dormancy, which prepares them for another year of the hard work and stress of bearing fruit. This winter our fruit trees never got this rest. So, they are a little like teenagers. All raging hormones, and unsure what to do next. Bud? Flower? Grow? In short, they’re confused and agitated.

How much earlier are the trees flowering?
We had apricots blooming before St. Paddy’s Day. Now that’s a record.

How does early flowering put the trees in danger?
The trees are exposed earlier and longer to cold nights. When flowering trees get hit with a spring frost, the fruit never develops. That means the tree has no or a very limited quantity of fruit that season. Frost could happen anytime between now and May. Around here, fruit growers think of the first moon in May as the safe date when the danger of frost is passed.

Fruit growers around here can talk of little else but the warm weather. Should they prune the trees harder and risk less fruit damage or leave more branches in case the frost damages more fruit? Farming is a usually a dance with Mother Nature, but this year it’s more like a jig.

What does this mean for farmers’ market shoppers this Spring?
It’s really hard to predict, but if current trends continue spring vegetables such as English peas, Spring onions, asparagus and green garlic will be coming in earlier. They’ll also be in abundance much earlier too.

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