Cold, wet weather turns tomato crop into late bloomer Unseasonable chill delays ripening on Eastern Shore

July 15, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- Where are they, the Big Boys of summer, the Better Boys, Ultra Girls, the Pik-Reds and Pik-Rites?

Maryland's tomatoes, the crown jewel of summer's bounty, are still in the fields, green on the vine -- and they probably won't be ready to pick for another week or more.

A cold spring, a wet June and too many cool summer nights have delayed this year's tomato harvest by as much as two weeks, say farmers on the Eastern Shore, where most of Maryland's tomatoes are grown.

"Some years, you ain't so damn lucky," said Jim Worm. His family farms about 800 acres in Caroline County, the self-described "Green Garden Country" of Maryland. Caroline farmers grew 4,667 acres of fresh-market vegetables last year, making it the leading fresh-market producer in the state.

"Last year, the grain wasn't good -- the extreme heat. This year, the vegetables don't look so good," Worm said.

A mile or so down the road from Worm's farm, Edward Quidas offers a similar viewpoint. Like Worm, he's now picking and shipping cantaloupes and sweet corn. But he's still waiting for the tomato crop to ripen.

"When will they be in? I can't even say," he said as workers packed cantaloupes into baskets, boxes and bins for shipping.

The unseasonably cool, wet weather also could affect tomato yields, although not severely.

"I don't think it's going to affect yields more than 10 percent," said Jim Lewis, Caroline County's agricultural agent.

The weather hasn't just delayed ripening -- the farmers say it's left its mark on the crop.

"The plants just didn't grow as rapidly," explains Dr. Herman Hohlt, a vegetable crop specialist with Virginia Tech, who works in Painter, Va., on the Delmarva Peninsula.

"It won't affect flavor, but might affect yield," he said. "There's abnormally high catface."

Catface is the name given to excessive scarring on the tomato end (opposite the stem end) where the blossom drops off.

Vincent Schulze, a fourth-generation farmer in Howard County, agrees about the delay in ripening. "We're about 10 days away from picking."

There's some truck farming -- the label given to produce grown for sale to stores and stands, as opposed to vegetables grown for processing canned and frozen foods -- west of the Chesapeake, notably Baltimore, Carroll and Prince George's counties.

But most of the truck farming in Maryland is done on the Shore, with Caroline, Dorchester and Wicomico counties devoting the most acreage to fresh-market produce. The leading crop in fresh-market produce is corn: 35 percent of total acreage last year was planted in sweet corn. Watermelon, which should come in next month, is next with 8.9 percent, and then tomatoes and snap beans, with 7.6 percent each of the state's acreage in 1995.

This year's quirky weather has affected tomatoes all along the Atlantic Coast, delaying yields in the Carolinas, Maryland and Virginia. For farmers, it could mean lower prices : if Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland hit peak season at the same time, supply outstrips demand, and the price falls.

Virginia is just beginning to pick the tomato crop; most Maryland farmers expect theirs to ripen late this week or next week.

For now, though, summer-vegetable lovers will have to make do with corn and cantaloupes, in full abundance in stores and on roadside stands. Tomatoes will be in next, and Maryland farmers are looking ahead to crops after that: feed grains such as corn and sorghum, also called milo by some farmers.

Pub Date: 7/15/96

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