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Love corn? Tomatoes? It’s been a tough season

Margaret Hoeffel eyes corn at Shoulder-to-Shoulder Farm, where the stalks are usually much taller by August. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Margaret Hoeffel eyes corn at Shoulder-to-Shoulder Farm, where the stalks are usually much taller by August.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

When Alison Bockus dressed for her job as the farmers market manager one Saturday earlier this month, her clothes — parka, gloves, wool socks and rain boots — captured the essence of this year’s growing season for many of the Island’s farmers and gardeners.

“It was miserable,” she said. “I was so cold and wet.”

Indeed, cold and wet was the order of the day for several months running.

April, May and June ranked among the top 15 coldest and wettest springs on record since 1945, according to Dennis D’Amico, a meteorologist with Seattle’s National Weather Service office.

May was 3.6 degrees colder than normal and June a full 4 degrees below normal. May also received nearly an inch more rain than normal, as did June — nearly double the month’s normal amount. July and the beginning of August have also been cooler than normal, he said, though not remarkably so.

The reason for all the cold and gloom, D’Amico noted, is the transition from winter’s El Nino weather pattern to La Nina. When that transition happens quickly, spring is often cool and wet, as was the case this year.

The result has been a host of weather-related challenges for the Island’s farmers: Birds ate some crops, bugs ate others; some crops went to seed quickly; some succumbed to disease, and others failed to do much of anything at all.

Farmers have had less to bring to the farmers markets, and fewer Islanders have made it to the market this year, according to Bockus, who said that the number of customers has fallen by one-third from last year.

“I have been farming here for 15 years, and this year has been the most challenging,” said Michele Crawford of Pacific Potager.

Crawford grows several crops, but many know her best for her tomatoes — heat-loving fruit that for many people are the essence of summer itself. She sells starts for 50 varieties so has an interest in people’s success growing them.

“This year, people are not having success,” she said.

Her own success with tomatoes this year has been slow to come as well, despite having all of her 800 plants in a greenhouse. Usually, she begins to sell tomatoes in the first week of July, she said, but this year she did not have any to sell until the first week of August.

Her slow tomatoes have plenty of company.

“The peppers are slow. The beans are slow. The basil is small,” she said. “This is not a summer kind of year.”

And so, in the spirit of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” she will sell starts for fall gardens in the coming weeks. She does not always do so, she said, partly be-cause fall starts need to be planted at the end of August or September, when people’s gardens are often still full of summer’s bounty. But this year, those gardens might not be so full.

“Some people might want to pull their peppers and put broccoli in instead,” she said.

At Hogsback Farm, manager Brian Lowry started to think about fall crops several months ago, when the area had an unseasonal warm streak in the late winter and early spring. “I took it as a bad sign,” he said.

He began planning for a cool summer then, he said, and expanded his plantings of fall crops.

The farm is a diverse one, helpful in times like these — because with 30 or 40 crops, when some fail, others are bound to succeed. He grows 30 varieties of tomatoes, he noted, and they are doing well in the greenhouses but are two weeks or so behind, along with his peppers.

Failure and success have been the case this summer with many farms, and many recall the frustrations of the spring.

Margaret Hoeffel, who shares Shoulder-to-Should-er Farm behind Vashon Cohousing with eight other families, said nothing grew in the spring.

“Things just sat and sat and sat and sat,” she said.

Their daikon radish crop, two 50-foot rows, had a lot of green growth, but nothing grew underground. Then the plants bolted. Their spinach bolted, too, as did their broccoli before it got big, she said.

Nistor Turca, at his north- end Hilltop Gardens, shares a similar story: He planted his onions, only to watch more than two-thirds bolt, he said. They went straight to the compost.

Weather-related problems have played out in other ways as well.

At Pacific Crest Farm, manager Jennifer Parker has had good luck with her cool-weather crops — lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, beets and carrots — but has had considerable plant disease to contend with: white rot on the garlic and onions, brown spot on the tomatoes and potatoes and rust on the garlic and leeks.

Parker has had enough success to support the farm’s consumer-supported agriculture shares but only recently has begun taking her harvest to the market.

“It’s been a challenging year,” she said.

Asked about his growing season this year, Joe Yarkin of Sun Island Farm had plenty of tales to tell.

“This spring it was almost Biblical,” he said.

The birds, hungry because of the lack of wild berries, ate all the fruit off their dozen cherry trees, and trouble did not just come from the sky.

“The slugs,” he said. “Oh my gosh.”

He lost a lot of plant starts to the voracious creatures and babied his zucchini starts from May into July, but the slugs did not win the day; Yarkin brought 75 pounds of zucchini to the market last Wednesday.

The recent heat wave will help his delayed tomatoes and 300-feet of slowly ripening melons, but there is a flip side, Yarkin noted last week.

“It will hammer all the things that were doing well.”

It’s like rolling dice when farmers order seeds, he said, and he tries to plant for all weather patterns.

“It evens out,” he said. “The bounty in some areas, scarcity in others.”

A trip to a road-side farm stand or the twice-weekly farmers market shows that there is, indeed, bounty, if later than usual. But some summer favorites will simply be hard to come by locally, including corn, another icon of summer for many.

Turca, who with 6,000 square feet to plant considers himself a gardener, not a farmer, says his corn is “tortuously slow” and doing badly.

Hoeffel, too, noted corn problems. In a typical summer, Islanders should be able to buy the earliest varieties of corn by now, but none is available yet.

“It was knee-high by the Fourth of July,” she said, referencing the old farmer’s benchmark for her crop. “It started great and then just —,” she said, her voice trailing off.

At Pacific Crest Farm, Parker planted corn three times, and each time, temperatures stayed too cold for it to germinate. It is now only knee- to waist-high. “It won’t make ears,” she said.

At Sun Island Farm, situated in the middle of Maury where temperatures are often a few degrees warmer than on other parts of the Island, Yarkin expects to have corn but three weeks later than normal.

The crop delays and failures have affected the farmers’ incomes, and Crawford hopes Islanders will step up.

“It’s really important for people to support farmers this year because they have been doing the same amount of work for less of a return,” she said.

Looking ahead, D’Amico predicts a fairly typical August, but beyond that, this fall, winter and next spring are expected to have below normal temperatures and above normal precipitation.

To some people, that sounds good.

“The skiers are excited about it,” he said.

Representatives from Washington State University and other farmers market officials will conduct a short customer survey from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 21, at the market. Market manager Alison Bockus is hoping for 300 to 400 responses. In addition, she would like to hear from people about what they like at the market, any changes they would like to see and what would make them attend if they are not now. E-mail her at marketmanager@vigavashon.org.

Farmers markets are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays in the Village Green.

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