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Berries raise hopes for Tri-State growers

April 12, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

bonnieb@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - Strawberries are blooming in Franklin County, which means fresh berries will be for sale in 35 to 40 days. That makes Steve Bogash very happy.

"Our strawberries taste good. I love bringing them home," Bogash said. "You don't have to add sugar to a locally grown strawberry. You can buy imported strawberries and douse them in sugar, but you can do that with wet cardboard."

Bogash, regional horticulture educator for Franklin, Adams and Cumberland counties for Penn State Cooperative Extension, said he thinks local small fruit and vegetable growers will have a good year. Strawberries and asparagus are the first local crops, he said.

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"I've been out to the strawberry growers. The plants coming out from under the row covers look very promising," Bogash said. "The first real harvest will be the end of the first or second week in May. Many things can happen between now and then, though."

Bogash said Franklin County has more acreage in strawberries than ever before because local farmers have not been able to meet the increasing demand for the sweet, soft fruit.

While strawberries are relatively easy to grow, harvesting them is another matter, Bogash said.

"You can make a reasonable profit with them, but you have to have your labor in order or you can't get them out of the field," he said. "It's the same with raspberries and blueberries - the demand is high, but it's a big challenge to get them out of the field."

Applications of drip irrigation tape and black plastic went smoothly this spring, and weather and soil conditions have been excellent, Bogash said.

Growers of other produce are working the soil now, Bogash said. He expects demand to continue to increase and prices to be sustainable.

Bogash estimated about 350 produce growers are in the three-county area. Thirty to 50 acres are considered a large produce farm.

Shippensburg, Pa., is home to two large produce auctions, where wholesalers come to purchase produce directly from the farmer. Both auctions have seen massive increases in volume annually because a smaller amount of land is available for growing produce in the Baltimore-Washington area, and demand for local produce is shifting to southern Pennsylvania, Bogash said.

"There's a very high demand for fresh produce," Bogash said. "I've been here four years, and I've seen huge increases. The American buying public recognizes the fact that when they get food locally, it's fresher and there is some innate quality to it. It hasn't spent time in storage or trucking."

Bogash, who also is horticulture team co-leader for the capital region, said local growers could not produce enough tomatoes and sweet corn last year.

"It was a long, wet year, which was challenging, and we've seen the demand go up every year," he said.

Unlike other areas of agriculture, produce has been a bright spot, Bogash said, adding that he is "real upbeat" because growers are adding new products such as sweet onions, garlic, shallots and cut flowers.

"This means growers are not sitting on their laurels; they're allowing themselves to change. It's a bright community," he said.

Reuben and Margaret Martin of Maplewood Produce on the south end of Shippensburg are in their 11th year of growing produce. Margaret Martin said recently that their strawberries are not yet in bloom because it's been too cool.

Their main crops are strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, string beans, lima beans, cucumbers and squash, most of which they sell at their farm stand, although some goes to the produce auction for wholesale, Martin said.

The family has 40 acres of produce, 25 of it in sweet corn.

The Martins and their nine children, ages 4 to 20, do most of the work themselves, although they hire some help, "mostly for picking strawberries and someone to run the market," she said.

For tree-fruit growers, the season starts a bit later.

Tammy Kriner, co-owner of Bingham's Orchard with her husband, fourth-generation orchardist Bill Kriner, said they are waiting for the fruit blossoms to arrive.

"We're putting some sprays on to protect from insects," she said.

The pruning is done, and they are waiting for warm temperatures "to get everything moving."

"Apricots are the first fruit, they're in bloom, but we're not sure how they fared with the recent cold morning," Tammy Kriner said.

Moisture has been adequate, she said, and their biggest concern is frost.

"If we get a cold spell, that would do more damage than anything," she said.

The Kriners farm 25 acres of apples and eight acres of peaches, and have a few cherry, apricot, nectarine and plum trees on Lincoln Way West in St. Thomas, Pa.

They have downsized considerably over the years, Kriner said.

"With women out in the workplace, people don't can as much fruit as they used to. They buy enough for a week or 10 days and then get more," she said. "They don't buy in bulk anymore.

"Wal-Mart has hurt our business, with one-stop shopping," she said.

While some local growers do contract with Wal-Mart, Kriner said, "If you don't get that contract, you're sitting out there swinging in the wind."

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