Naperville Farmers Market vendors say extraordinary winter has yielded to an ordinary growing season

  • A generous inventory of fresh strawberries, one of spring's first Midwestern crops, was among the offerings on opening day at the Naperville Farmers Market Saturday. | Photo by Susan Carlman
  • Bedding plants, including an array of savory herbs, were part of the product line as the farmers market season began at Naperville's Fifth Avenue Station Saturday morning. | Photo by Susan Carlman
  • The weekly farmers markets in Naperville, including the Saturday morning edition at the Fifth Avenue Station and the Wednesday afternoon/evening market at St. John's Episcopal Church, offer plenty of ways to get more fruits and vegetables into the household diet. | Photo by Susan Carlman

The local harvest season has hit the ground running.

Growers who brought their goods to opening day of the Naperville Farmers Market Saturday morning showed no indication that the unusually harsh winter just past took a significant toll on the summer ahead.

If anything, spring has been the monkey on the farmer’s back.

“Everything’s a little slower this year, because of the cold spring, but things are coming in well now,” said Melissa Morlock of JW Morlock & Girls, a fruit farm in Watervliet, Mich.

The vendor’s booth was laden heavily with cartons of strawberries emitting their sweet scent. Later in the season, the Morlocks will bring blueberries, peaches, plums and other fresh-picked sweets to the weekly market.

Heaped high on tables flanking the center aisle of the venue, set up in the parking lot of the Fifth Avenue Station building, were a wide array of early-season goods, from asparagus and rhubarb to spinach and lettuce to beets and broccoli — and lots of strawberries.

The upbeat mood showed a marked departure from the season’s start for fruit growers two years ago, which was marred by a March heat spell followed by a punishing late-April freeze that wiped out nearly all of the apples and peaches.

That doesn’t mean growers in Michigan this year emerged entirely unscathed from the most severe winter on record for that state.

“It’s been a little rough with some of the fruit,” said Mathew Gelder of Ellis Farms in Benton Harbor, who expects a slight dip in the yield for a couple varieties of the peaches that will be coming to market several weeks from now.

Overall, however, it appeared to come as a relief that the season is off to a fairly uneventful beginning. Blueberries will be ready in about four weeks, Gelder said, and the sweet corn planted April 1 at Evergreen Farm in Yorkville should be ready for picking just after the Fourth of July.

Steve Theis, who runs Evergreen Farm with his family, said the record-setting freezes that gripped northern Illinois in January and February weren’t damaging from a vegetable grower’s perspective.

“It’s good that that happens, because it kills all the bugs,” said Theis, whose booth had huge quantities of peas, broccoli, potatoes, strawberries and assorted other produce for sale.

Pickings also are anything but slim at Lange’s Farm in Elwood, a market participant since it began in the late 1980s.

“We’re off to a good start,” said Kirk Lange, who reported he and his dad Harold Lange are nearly all caught up on their planting after the cold and rain of spring led to slight delays. “I would say we have as much at this point as we’ve ever had.”

Patron volume was similarly abundant as the day began. Lange said while a segment of the customer base turns over every couple years, there’s a solid core of market shoppers he sees season after season.

Wheaton resident Caren Messina-Hirsch is among them. A professor of nutrition sciences at Dominican University, the Wheaton resident goes to the Naperville market early on Saturday mornings, to be assured of the best selection and avoid the crowds that come later. She has visited some of the vendors, including Lange’s Farm, and looks forward to opening day every spring.

“I have my favorite vendors here that I go to,” she said, just after stopping at the booth operated by Honey Trails, beekeepers based in Wayne, to swap last year’s empty jars for a fresh supply of full ones. “I’m looking at all the beautiful stuff that they have on a gorgeous day. I mean, what more would you want?”

While it didn’t create particular problems for them as growers, many of them want a more normal winter next year — if only for comfort’s sake. Theis said he’s heard predictions on farm channels that next winter will bring a repeat of the one just past. There’s not much the farmers, or any of the rest of us, can do about that.
“If you own a snowplow,” Theis said with a shrug, “this would be the year to use it.”

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