Summer bounty berry, berry early

Fresh strawberries are for sale, along with many other produce choices, at Esh’s Farm Stand on Route 70 in Southampton. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Fresh strawberries are for sale, along with many other produce choices, at Esh’s Farm Stand on Route 70 in Southampton. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 17, 2012

Snow had fallen by Halloween; in effect, spring arrived by Christmas, and the blossoms were popping by Easter.

And despite the atmosphere’s recent flirtations with quasi-normality, the seasonal fast-forwarding trend has continued briskly in the Philadelphia region’s farms and fields, where veteran observers report that the annual bounty of summer fruits and vegetables is a full week to two weeks ahead of schedule.

Even better, one weather service says the summer could pass without a heat wave.

Local strawberries, which typically start showing up in late May, already are hitting the stands. “To get them the first week, second week, of May, that’s amazing,” said Andrew Frankenfield, agricultural specialist at Pennsylvania State University’s Montgomery County extension service, in Collegeville.

Butch Sparacio, owner of Sparacio Farm in Bridgeton, N.J., said Tuesday that in his 35 years in the business, what he is seeing is almost unbelievable. “It’s the biggest-size crop we’ve ever had,” he said as a late-morning downpour pounded on his stand’s tin roof.

That rain was part of a potent system that deposited almost a half-inch on Philadelphia in a one-hour period. No significant trauma was reported, but more rain fell between 8 a.m. and noon — 0.81 inches at the airport — than during the entire month of March.

A few showers are possible Wednesday, but after that, the weather looks fabulous through Tuesday, with sun and daytime temperatures in the 70s. Looking farther ahead, contrary to the blistering heat of the last two years, at least one long-range outlook foresees a summer of normal temperatures.

Normal is one term that would not apply to the atmosphere’s behavior for the last several months.

In fact, with an average temperature of 46.6, the first four months of 2012 represented the warmest such period in official record-keeping, dating to 1874, and evidence suggests that the soil has an attention span.

It has exploited the residual warmth, and even though the four-month period was the fifth-driest on record, with just 7.7 inches of precipitation in Philadelphia, the plant life evidently was still able to reap the harvest of 2011’s record rains.

The vegetative prosperity has been regionwide, Frankenfield said. “Everything is sort of affected by the weather similarly,” he said. He estimated that crops are about two weeks ahead of schedule. “We’re not surprised,” he said, “because we saw it coming.”

Plants that suffered in the dry spell have rallied with the fresh rounds of rain. Hay that normally would need mowing in late May, he said, needs it now.

The early-arrival trend looks to persist into the summer, according to Bob Von Rohr with Jersey Fruit, a farm cooperative responsible for major shares of the Garden State’s blueberry and peach crops. He looks for blueberries to appear in two weeks, and peaches by July 1 — a week to 10 days ahead of schedule in both cases.

The crops probably are a lot easier to forecast than the weather, but for what it’s worth AccuWeather Inc.’s seasonal outlook is a refreshing one for those who don’t enjoy roasting in the sun or paying high air-conditioning bills.

Its meteorologists are looking for a broad area of high pressure, or heavier air, to set up in the West, countered by lower pressure in the East that generally would be more favorable to cooler weather and rainfall, said the company’s Jack Boston. The urban corridor from Washington to Boston should escape punitive heat waves, said his colleague Paul Pastelok.

In the short term, Sparacio is bullish on the strawberry outlook. “The crop is probably the best it’s been the history of the farm,” he said. While he would like to take credit, he said, he was at a loss to explain precisely what was different this year, other than the preseasonal weather.

Von Rohr said all this precocity eventually will have a downside for the Jersey fruit season. “Since it started earlier,” he said, “it will end earlier.”

Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-761-8423 or twood@phillynews.com.

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