Another roller-coaster year for Ontario vegetables

After last year’s punishing summer drought, spring 2017 has seen Ontario growers rushing to plant their fields between rainstorms, hail, frost and even a near tornado.

Ontario asparagus, first on the local scene, started early with a surprising but short-lived warm spell in mid-April before the cold settled in.

“Without question, 2017 will not be remembered as a banner year from a yield perspective,” said Ken Wall, co-owner of Port Burwell, Ontario-based Sandy Shore Farms.

“But a number of us are holding out hope that we can keep this deal going at a little higher level than normal in June, when production normally tails off,” Wall said May 30.

The low Canadian dollar gives growers a strong incentive to send product to the U.S., said Bernie Solymar, executive director of Asparagus Farmers of Ontario.

“Prices are strong and retailers are clamoring for more asparagus,” Solymar said.

Scott Biddle, president and CEO of Vittoria, Ontario-based Scotlynn Group, a partner in Belle Glade, Fla.-based Scotlynn Sweet Pac Growers LLC, said his early corn got in on time in late April, with harvesting expected around July 20.

Tomatoes and peppers, which thrive in Norfolk County’s sandy soil, look to be on target for harvest in mid- to late July, said Eric Chanyi, vice president of Windham Centre, Ontario-based Shabatura Farms Ltd.

“Things got in on time followed by a big gap in planting, but Mother Nature usually evens out everything in the end,” Chanyi said.

Strawberries and corn look good, he said, though the corn is patchy in places where water damaged the seeds.

“Last year we needed rain and this year we have way too much so far,” he said.

Bill Nightingale Jr., president of Nightingale Farms in La Salette, Ontario, said his covered crops, including organic peppers, are doing exceptionally well.

He began harvesting green zucchini June 3, with organic a week later.

In Ontario’s salad bowl, the Holland Marsh, Hillside Gardens’ sales and marketing associate Steven Kamenar said celery is in the ground and growing well, with harvest expected the beginning of July, while beet, carrot and onion seeding continued.

On the night of the twister hail damaged quite a few transplants, trees were knocked over and harvest boxes and barn doors flung around, he said.

“Most of the crop looks OK and it didn’t set us back,” he said.

As the end of May approached, field operations manager Dennie Moser was in catch-up mode at Dominion Farm Produce in Bradford, Ontario.

“Everything looks OK, though some onions were a bit beat up by the hail,” Moser said.

“Growers are a little behind but it’s nothing to be concerned about.”

Dominion has planted another 60 acres of carrots this year to help extend the local season. Harvesting of early carrots is tentatively set for July 15, and he said his parsnips look “fantastic.”

Queensville, Ontario-based Smith Gardens had completed 90% of its planting of red and yellow onions, parsnips and beets by May 25, said part owner Paul Smith, but his carefully designed map of where each vegetable would be planted for optimum crop rotation proved useless.

“This year the land picked where we were going to plant things because whatever was dry when we were ready to plant got planted and what was too wet had to wait,” said Smith, who’s added 26 acres of romaine for processing.

Pain Court, Ontario-based Nature’s Finest Produce, which grows and packs 4,000 acres of carrots, onions and yellow potatoes in balmy southwestern Ontario, got everything in the ground a month ahead of the rest of the province, as usual.

President Jason Stallaert expects to begin harvesting carrots and yellow potatoes the second week of July.

With last fall’s storage crop dwindling, potato growers were also eager to get in their fields.

Trevor Downey, owner of Downey Farms in Shelburne, one of Ontario’s largest potato suppliers, said rain pushed his planting nearly two weeks behind schedule, but he was confident he’d catch up.

Planting began early in the Leamington area, said Len Brackenbury, field manager for Burlington, Ontario-based EarthFresh Foods, with harvesting expected around July 10.

Potatoes from the Simcoe-Delhi area, where farmers began planting before being forced to stop by wet and cold, should be ready July 18-20, Brackenbury said.

“We could potentially have a normal year as the crop seems to be catching up well,” he said.

“But it’s still too early to talk about yield or quality.”