Buggin’ Out Over the Warm Winter’s Impact on NYC Greenmarkets

Vendors hock fresh fruits at the Union Square Greenmarket. While city slickers might think that this year's abnormally warm winter will mean an early arrival of plentiful produce, farmers say the strange temperatures pose a host of problems. Flickr/ceiling

New York State’s 2011-2012 winter was the second warmest on record (yes, technically speaking, it does not end until March 20, but c’mon…). Not surprisingly, in New York City the unusually mild temperatures have translated to an abundance of unsold sleds, early blossoms, allergies and heightened crime levels.

So despite the hail of sneezes and bullets, the warm winter will result in an early arrival of fresh fruits and vegetables at the city’s farmers markets, right? Perhaps, but they might be accompanied by some unwanted guests…

“Insects, that’s my chief concern about this winter,” said Ted Blomgren, owner of Windflower Farm in Valley Falls, N.Y. Blomgren’s farm supplies fruit, vegetables, flowers and eggs to Community Supported Agriculture sharing programs in New York City neighborhoods including Park Slope, Clinton Hill, Harlem and the Lower East Side (and — somehow not surprisingly — directly to the folks who work in Google’s NYC office). Like many of the farmers who supply to the city’s CSA’s and Greenmarkets, Blomgren’s crops are all organic, so he doesn’t use any pesticides. That’s why he’s especially anxious.

“I’m happy to have cold weather disrupt pest cycles. So I fear that insects and diseases could come in greater numbers, and start causing trouble earlier,” said Blomgren.

Kids running down the rows at Garden of Eve organic farm on Long Island. Garden of Eve farmer Chris Kaplan-Walbrecht said the warm winter has caused certain destructive species of insects to move further north than usual. Photo courtesy of Garden of Eve.

Chris Kaplan-Walbrecht, who runs Garden of Eve Organic Farm and Market on Long Island, agrees that the insects that like to munch his crops every year — mainly beetles and fleas — are more prevalent after a mild winter. But Kaplan-Walbrecht, whose farm supplies vegetables to the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Greenmarket in Brooklyn, says there’s an even bigger unknown to fear: insect species that aren’t even native to New York.

Last fall, Kaplan-Walbrecht began noticing certain destructive worms and caterpillars that he hadn’t seen in years; it turns out that these species were migrating from down south. “As the season comes we’ve started to get them moving up the coast,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said of the destructive creatures.

Daniel Gilrein, an entomologist at Cornell University’s agricultural research center in Suffolk County, said that the true impact of the warm winter on local crops will be revealed over the next couple of months.

“I can safely say that when we have mild winters the corn earworm [which feasts on corn and tomato crops] tends to winter better than it normally does, meaning we will see them earlier this year,” Gilrein said.

Then there’s the issue of soil diseases that usually die off in the cold.

“We count on freezing and thawing in the soil. That loosens it up and kills any diseases, like powdery mildew,” said Kaplan-Walbrecht. “But they could possibly have found a safe area over the winter and they may appear earlier.”

Simple city-folk logic indicates that farmers should start planting earlier than usual to counteract the downsides of the warm weather. But Jack Hoeffner, owner of Hoeffner Farms in Montgomery, N.Y., said that would be jumping the gun.


In New Jersey, the warm winter has contributed to a booming invasive southern pine beetle population. Video courtesy of NJToday.

“We have frost in May to worry about. Once we get to May we could be looking at 10 to 15 degrees warmer than usual, and we presume we might be two or three weeks ahead of schedule,” said Hoeffner, who supplies herbs and vegetables to Union Square Greenmarket and other farmers’ markets throughout the city. “Asparagus and rhubarb might be coming early this year.”

Many of New York City’s Greenmarkets are open year-round, but what you see at the markets all depends on whether farmers like Hoeffner think the rewards of planting early outweigh the risks of a spring cold snap. A little more than half of the city’s Greenmarkets open between April and July, and a representative for GrowNYC, the nonprofit that operates them, said they didn’t think the weather would have an impact on the opening dates.

In the meantime, the farmers are stockpiling defenses.

“It sounds kind of mean, but if pests emerge before there are vegetables for them to eat, they’ll perish. So in our greenhouses, we use some techniques to try and draw them out early,” said Blomgren.

Out on Long Island, Garden of Eve is waging bug-on-bug combat.

“I’m optimistic — what if we do get insects? — we do put out a lot of beneficials [insects that feast on the plant-eating species] so that’s our counter to the problem,” said Kaplan-Walbrecht.

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