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Reaping the results of a warm winter

Here in my part of the Northeast, we’ve made it nearly to the end of March without having to wield our snow shovels more than once or twice, a nice surprise after a pre-Halloween storm that many of us thought might herald another rough winter. Instead, we’ve enjoyed unseasonably warm temperatures and an early start to the spring blooming season. Seemingly overnight, bright yellow forsythia and jonquils have exploded, trees are full of buds and winter’s brown landscape is rapidly transforming into spring’s many shades of green.

It’s a great thing for those of us whose temperaments flourish when temperatures rise, but what does it mean for the farmers who put food on our plates?

Plants are putting out buds early all over the country, and the warm winter also has bears coming out of hibernation earlier than they’re supposed to. Finding little wild food to forage, they are raiding farmers’ fields and taking a bite out of the season’s early crops, The Cornell Daily Sun reported. More deer than usual also survived the winter, and they’re nibbling the buds that fruit trees need to produce food later in the year.

Also around the country, consumers are increasingly seeking out local produce, according to a Mintel report released last week. More than half of consumers surveyed said local has become more important to them than organic, but growing hordes of locavores may have better luck in some markets than others.

March came into suburban Chicago like a lamb, pushing fruit trees to bud and gardeners to get started with their vegetable growing nearly a month ahead of schedule, but gardening experts warn it could be a costly false start, the Daily Herald reported Saturday. “I haven’t seen anything like this, and I’ve been working at the arboretum for 35 years,” said Ed Hedborn, manager of plant records at Morton Arboretum.

But cold weather may still be hovering, weather that could bring a hard frost as late as May and crush the hopes of growers looking to get a jump on the season’s farmers markets. “Not a lot of the produce we eat is grown without our region. But it could have a big impact on the burgeoning local foods effort where we see more and more people trying to grow stuff locally to get fresher and better tasting food,” said University of Illinois crop sciences professor Bruce Branham.

It’s not all bad news. In New Jersey, where meteorologists are predicting winter’s warm temperatures to hang around, the early start to the growing season may mean a more bountiful harvest of blueberries, tomatoes and corn this summer. According to The Star Ledger, the Garden State is also on track to get mosquitoes early and ticks in record numbers, and the warm winter kept bees active and eating up their food supplies when they would normally be dormant. The result: seriously depleted hives that will result in a dearth of honey this season.┬áStill, farmers are looking on the bright side.

“Mother Nature always holds the advantage,” said Peter Furey, the New Jersey Farm Bureau’s executive director. “But when it’s warm like this, it gives the grower a little bit of a head start.”