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No big chill for early Chicago farmers markets

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Prolonged bitter cold gripped the Great Lakes region this winter. And this prompted concerns that the spring crops of local vegetables and fruits would be delayed or diminished.

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But there’s good news. While the temperatures have remained stubbornly chilly through the first half of spring, regional farmers report that their produce is coming in close to normal.

Saturday was opening day for the outdoor season of Green City Market, Chicago’s best-known farmers’ market. And asparagus -- annually one of the first crops to come in -- was piled high on the tables at the stand of Mick Klug Farm, located across the lake in St. Joseph, Michigan.

“We’re actually about on time for asparagus, it started popping about 10 days ago,” said Abby Klug-Schilling, the farm and sales manager and daughter of owner Mick Klug. “The growth is slow, but those warm days that we did have, the warmer it is, the quicker it grows.”

Klug-Schilling said it appears rhubarb, another early-arriving crop, is about a week out and also close to schedule.

Not that the big chill did not have some kind of impact. If you like strawberries to go with your rhubarb, you may have to be a little patient. “Usually we try to start picking by the first of June. My guess is that it will probably be the second week in June,” Klug-Schilling said.

She added that there was an unintended positive consequence to the frequent way-below-zero temperatures this winter: The farm’s peach trees will take a lot less tending. As long as a late frost does not damage the trees -- and that has not occurred this year -- the buds have to be thinned to make sure that the fruit that follows is big enough to sell.

“They have to be thinned every spring, and it was kind of a natural thinning process. The buds that didn’t survive, well there were probably going to be too many buds on the tree to survive,” Klug-Schilling said.

Beth Eccles of Green Acres Farm in North Judson, Indiana, also said she is pleased with her crops’ progress.

“I think it is pretty close to normal. The ground temperature is a little colder than normal, but we are right on schedule in our plant-out. Perhaps we may be about a week behind in terms of growth, if the temperature doesn’t kind of rebound soon and be closer to normal. But otherwise, I think things are pretty well on track,” Eccles said.

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