It’s the peak of the season at the Durango Farmers Market, and display tables are overflowing with a cornucopia of healthy produce.
But despite the dazzling array of color and mouth-watering stacks of fruit and vegetables lining the booths, this year’s weather provided some challenges for local farmers, who worked extra hard to prevail over some adverse conditions and deliver the goods.
Local tomatoes are trickling in, and farmers said they are hoping for a late frost to give their sluggish plants a chance to catch up from this season’s cool beginnings.
If you are intent on stocking up on winter squash, however, this is your lucky year. Dave Banga of Banga’s Farm said this year’s crop just might be his best ever.
Banga grows a single variety of winter squash called kabocha at 7,100 feet just south of Mancos. He favors the flavor and texture of kabocha, which originated in the cold temperatures and high altitudes of northern Japan and Korea.
A prolific and creative cook, Banga uses kabocha to make everything from desserts and ice cream to savory dishes and mashed squash prepared in a rice cooker.
Linley Dixon of Adobe House Farm in Durango reported an “unexpected abundance” of winter squash, leeks and onions, and Jennifer Wheeling of James Ranch in Hermosa also reported a healthy squash harvest. And although squash and tomatoes are both heat-loving, full-sun plants, neither could explain the delay in local tomatoes.
But north of Cortez on Stone Free Farm, owner Chuck Barry reported “an exceptional tomato year.” One of the pioneers of the Durango Farmers Market, Barry embodies a relaxed confidence that comes with the wisdom of experience. He speculated that warmer nights early in the season may have helped, but even he could not say for sure why his tomatoes did so well.
Although it hasn’t frosted yet in most areas, farmers saw their share of hail this season. Barry said his farm anticipates about $3,000 in lost revenue from hail every year.
Leslie Kerby of Kerby Orchard in Farmington reported three different hailstorms with half-inch hail or larger, the most hail he’s seen since 1998, he said. Although he has some of each of his varieties of fruit, he only has about 30 percent of a full crop, he said.
One of only a few local fruit orchards, Kerby Orchard currently has apples, pears, plums, grapes and fresh cider for sale. Kerby also has plenty of hail-damaged seconds available – applesauce, anyone?
Banga said a frost hit his farm Sept. 10, but it didn’t faze him because he is able to prepare for it by covering his crops or harvesting.
Farmers from a couple of larger farms said they downscaled their production this season in order to simplify their lives. Barry of Stone Free Farm said fatigue from many years of hard work prompted him to scale back.
Wheeling said her farm at James Ranch reduced its focus from 35 crops to just 10. “I want to be able to two-step when I’m 60,” she said, noting that she has started to feel the wear and tear on her body from almost two decades of farming.
Most of the crops they did grow did very well, Wheeling said. In just three successive plantings of snap peas, they produced 600 pounds more peas than in past years with five plantings. Instead of growing cherry tomatoes in their hoop houses, this year they planted dahlias.
“The dahlias have done extremely well, as they love the heat,” Wheeling said. They certainly make for a dazzling display at the James Ranch booth, and Wheeling is happy that her customers can take some home to enjoy.
Despite the cool spring, some cool-weather-loving crops did not fare as well this year at Adobe House Farm, said Dixon, who holds a Ph.D. in plant pathology. Last year brought an abundance of broccoli and cauliflower, but this season, their growth was stunted.
Her farm struggled with an “insane” amount of weeds this year, Dixon said, and the monsoons never really materialized, which forced them to irrigate well into August when they can usually cut back on watering. But the effects of those challenges weren’t noticeable at the Adobe House booth, which had one of the largest, most diverse displays at the market, including a limited supply of very sweet, late-growing strawberries.
Dixon takes a fervorish approach to her work and was quick to point out the hidden struggles that small, independent local farmers face in trying to compete with mainstream agriculture.
Dixon said she sometimes has to remind herself why she returns to farm again, year after year. When asked what keeps her coming back, she cited the superior taste and quality of the food and the community support from her customers.
Dixon also said she is driven by her desire to help prevent the environmental damage caused by large-scale commercial agriculture, including pesticide and chemical exposure and pollution from production and transportation that contributes to global warming.
“I feel like it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
Now that fall is officially here, head over to the Farmers Market before the first frost, to take advantage of the hard work of our local farmers, some of our community’s unsung heroes.
Stephanie Harris, DC, is a Durango chiropractor, former registered dietitian and mom of two with a passion for helping people live healthier lifestyles. Reach her at email@example.com.