Winter has been very mild this year for most of us who don’t live in Alaska. The general lack of snow and cold is attributable to unusual patterns in the Arctic and North Atlantic Oscillations, which have kept the jet stream more northerly than usual. The warmer temperatures have been a welcome relief after last winter’s heavy snowstorms but have been a cause for concern among some farmers.
Fruit trees bearing apples, stone fruit, and to a lesser degree, pears and other fruit, have a chilling requirement—a minimum time of cold temperatures needed for the trees to blossom and produce fruit. Peach farmers in Georgia and other southeastern states have been concerned about their crops because of warmer than usual weather, but by early March the outlook is better, and it appears that they’ll get the chilling hours they need for a normal crop. Around two-thirds of the U.S. peach crop is grown in California, where low chill–requirement trees are common and the crop outlook has remained stable.
Winter wheat is another cold weather dependent crop that has northern growers concerned. The wheat seeds are planted in the fall, and snow cover is important for moisture and insulation during the winter. In addition, warmer weather means pest larvae survive at much higher rates and cause more damage during the spring growing season, a problem that could affect other crops as well.
In California, the weather patterns have led to drought conditions in a La Niña year that has continued into early 2012. With an estimated 50 percent or more of the country’s fruit and vegetable crop grown in the state, drought conditions in California are always a concern. For the time being, California’s reservoirs are still close to full from last winter’s large snowfall, and the impacts for 2012 crops should be minimal. In fact, mild weather conditions have been great for the early strawberry crop in Southern California.
What vegetables can we expect as spring rapidly approaches? Artichokes are at their peak starting in March and offer a wealth of fiber, potassium, copper, calcium, iron, and phosphorus, plus folic acid, vitamins C and K, and four of the Bs, including niacin. Artichokes help lower blood cholesterol levels through several mechanisms and are certainly worth indulging in.
Asparagus season has just begun in California, offering a great source of vitamin K, which is important for bone health. Asparagus is also rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. To keep these levels high, it is best to consume asparagus as soon as possible after picking because of its high respiration rate after cutting. Buy locally grown asparagus when possible.
Peas are a true hallmark of spring. Although frozen peas are available year-round, nothing can compare to the delicate flavor of fresh peas off the vine. They are also nutrient-packed, with a large mix of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, including one that has been shown to help reduce the risk of stomach cancer.
Other spring delicacies that have made (or will soon make) their appearance include watercress, fiddlehead ferns, celeriac, mustard greens, and Vidalia onions, among others. And these are just the first wave of flavors for this growing season. Strawberries will be in full season within a month or so.
All in all, our kitchens should not be greatly impacted by the mild winter, and the best of spring is on its way. We get to have our cake and eat it too, and even pocket the savings on our heating bills. Thank you, Mother Nature!