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Innovations bringing farm favorites to market early in the season
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Innovations bringing farm favorites to market early in the season

HANOVER—It may only be early spring, but some seasonal favorite foods are already showing up at local farm markets.

Consumers might not expect to see produce like strawberries until late April or early May, but some farmers like Anne Geyer of Agriberry Farm in Hanover County have the sweet treats ripe and ready.

Geyer credits part of the early production to her farm’s low tunnels, which allow her to get a jump on the growing season.

“We place low tunnels over a portion of our 12 acres when the strawberries are planted in the fall,” said Geyer, who serves on the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Specialty Crops Advisory Committee.

She explained that the plastic-covered low tunnels create a microclimate that protects the berries from frost—allowing them to branch their crowns and develop more flower buds.

“And then the magic sauce for 2023 was that warm blast in February, so that’s what initiated a lot of blooms underneath those same tunnels,” she said.

When they removed the tunnels’ covers in late March, the berries were already ripening. Geyer grows ever-bearing and traditional June-bearing strawberry varieties to have berries available for consumers much of the year.

Like Geyer, many farmers invest in season-extending practices like low tunnels, high tunnels and plasticulture—using lightweight plastic covers or mulch on raised beds to control soil temperature, moisture, weeds and pests. Those practices also help growers mitigate risk and potential crop loss from fluctuating early spring weather.

Janet Aardema of Broadfork Farm in Chesterfield County gives her crops an early start with hoop houses—taller, plastic-covered structures that create a greenhouse effect to warm the interior without added heat or ventilation. She’s currently harvesting salad greens, sweet salad turnips, radishes and spring onions, and said the hoop houses allow her to meet ever-increasing consumer demand for local produce while remaining sustainable.

“Our six hoop houses allow us to grow and harvest approximately 11 months out of the year, providing a huge help to our business,” she said. “Our customers want tremendous-tasting food, grown without synthetic inputs, and grown with climate resilience in mind. Our hoop houses allow us to grow more food that meets those metrics.”

In Westmoreland County, Dana Boyle of Garner’s Produce has already been selling spinach, watercress and other spring greens grown in her farm’s high tunnels. She said the infrastructure can be a costly investment, but it’s a worthwhile tradeoff to produce more varieties earlier and longer.

“For certain leafy greens, they would be impossible to have in the colder weather without high tunnels,” said Boyle, who also serves on the VFBF Specialty Crops Advisory Committee.

And while her spring greens and strawberries are the focus now, she’s looking at offering more favorites earlier in the season.

“The tomatoes aren’t ready yet, but we’ll get them earlier since they’re in the controlled environment,” Boyle said.

To find seasonal Virginia-grown produce at local farmers markets near you, visit virginiagrown.com.

Media: Contact Geyer at 804-537-0448, Boyle at 804-761-2412 or Aardema at 804-337-6540.

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