If you use the seasons as your guide for grocery shopping or for ordering at restaurants, you might be doing a double-take these days. Local strawberries already?
It’s not just fruit, either. Asparagus, onions, pea tendrils — they are all coming sooner than normal.
“I never saw asparagus in February. Normally, it would get in in April,” said Cory Mosser of farming consultant company Natural Born Tillers and former farm manager at Burge Organic Farm near Mansfield, southeast of Atlanta. “I was working at a school garden this past weekend and saw asparagus popping up. It completely blew my mind,” he said in an interview in late February.
Home cooks who stock up on Vidalia onions can get ready to clamor for the bulbs, prized for their sweetness and mild flavor. Vidalia onions — the official vegetable of Georgia, which can only be grown in a 20-county area in the southeastern part of the state — are expected to hit the produce section beginning April 12 as a result of Georgia’s mild winter. Normally the onions arrive around April 25.
“We’re definitely having an early spring,” said Georgia Department of Agriculture spokesperson Julie McPeake. The annual Vidalia onion festival, now in its 40th year, will take place April 27-30 in the city of Vidalia.
The early spring crop is exciting for folks (including chefs) fatigued by cold-season citrus, root veggies and hearty winter greens. Talking with some top toques around Atlanta, you can sense the giddiness that comes with seasonal crop swap.
“Strawberries came in about a month before they usually do, and they came in really strong,” said Saltyard executive chef Nick Leahy.
Normally, Leahy might pickle early strawberries or use them for jam. But this year, “they came in so beautiful, indicative of early weather,” that Leahy is featuring them in an Eton Mess on Saltyard’s dessert menu. “It’s a favorite dessert of mine,” he said of the traditional English meal-ender that sees a mixture of strawberries, meringue and whipped cream. “It has been our top-selling dessert since.”
Since early March, Leahy has also been putting to work versatile pea tendrils, which usually don’t come to market here until the end of March. Pea tendrils are getting used at Saltyard in everything from pesto to chimichurri to a green finish for sautéed veggies.
“Our menus are redolent of spring,” said Atlanta chef-restaurateur Anne Quatrano. Head to her W.H. Stiles Fish Camp at Ponce City Market and you’ll find a strawberry cobbler as well as a strawberry-cucumber salad. At her Floataway Cafe, stinging nettles star on pizza and pastas. At flagship Bacchanalia, a dish of Ora King wild salmon also holds spring onions, wood sorrel and Pacific morel mushrooms. All of the produce is coming earlier than ever.
While the restaurant group’s strawberries hailed from Florida, some of that produce is grown on its Georgia farm in Cartersville. “We don’t grow anything in conditioned hoops,” Quatrano said. “We have high tunnels that restrict moisture, and we can close them at night if it gets cold,” she said.
Ah, yes, the threat of a cold snap. It’s why an early crop causes concern in the farming community. “We could be setting ourselves up for challenging problems,” Mosser warned.
“Tree fruits are flowering. If we avoid a hard frost, we’ll get extra-early fruit, and an abundance of it,” he said. “If there is a frost, the fruit crop will be at risk. We could lose pears, plums, peaches. It could be an interesting year, fruitwise,” he said. The last frost in this area typically comes in early April.
Quatrano recently noticed buds breaking on fig trees at her farm. Her fingers, too, are crossed that a return to chilly weather won’t do damage to the fruit.
And then there is the pesky issue of pests.
“Even grasshoppers are early,” said Nicholas Donck of Crystal Organic Farm in Newborn, whose produce is sourced by Empire State South, Staplehouse, Miller Union, Gunshow and other upper-echelon restaurants in Atlanta.
Donck noted that the grasshopper population really never took a break during cold weather months. “It’s been hopping all winter long,” he said. Apart from grasshoppers, Donck is concerned about a potential aphid infestation. He sees the pest problem as one that could have the most impact on organic farmers, who don’t use pesticides.
Michael Schenk of local food distributor Turnip Truck also anticipates that weather might entail planning and logistics challenges to farmers. “Do we plant stuff? Do we hold off, just in case?” he said.
Schenk cited Red Earth Organic Farms in Zebulon, which grows, among other foodstuffs, strawberries and blueberries. Both of these fruits are labor intensive, and the farm usually hires high school students to harvest the fruit. “If you are a small farmer with seasonal labor, you have to change that around and scramble to harvest in time,” Schenk said.
Schenk and I chatted as he let me poke through late-season parsley and winter greens that Donck had just dropped off. Both crops were showing signs of bolting, the greens popping flowerettes — and earlier than normal. I also peeked into coolers at Turnip Truck that held some 450-plus pounds of certified organic strawberries from Miles Berry Farm in southeast Georgia.
Schenk is struck by the shift in growing seasons, particularly the warm spike within just the past couple of years. Strawberries, for example, arrived at Turnip Truck this year three and a half weeks earlier than last year. Thinking back, Schenk recalled that the 2016 shipment arrived two weeks earlier than in 2015.
Mosser, too, is alert to how rising temperatures are affecting the growing cycle. He noted that in the last 15 years, Atlanta has shifted growing zones. “It was 7B. Now it is 8A. Some areas of Georgia have shifted an entire number. This is especially freaky,” Schnenk said.
What’s “in season”? Stay tuned. The times, they are a-changin’.