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Cool, dry spring delays spring crops on LI

Fran Zahn of Massapequa took this photo of

Fran Zahn of Massapequa took this photo of blueberries and strawberries for sale at a farm stand in Orient. "Delicious berries on a warm afternoon." (2012) Credit: Fran Zahn

There are more than 60 farm stands listed on the Long Island Farm Bureau's online map -- a guide to produce that may have been in the soil only hours before being sold.

But thanks to a cool, dry spring, Memorial Day shoppers may find their favorite fresh fruits and vegetables less plentiful, farm officials say.

"It's been an unusually cool and dry spring. We're happy," Joseph M. Gergela III, executive director of the Farm Bureau, said. "Almost all the farms can irrigate now." But the weather that hampers weeds, insects and fungus also has slowed the natural growth cycle, so asparagus isn't coming up as fast and there likely will be fewer local strawberries this holiday weekend.

Still, Gergela said, they will come in.

"We're off to a slow start. Last year it was warmer," he said, adding that parts of Manorville actually experienced frost last week. "We'll be seeing some [strawberries] by Memorial Day."

Shoots of asparagus are now coming out of the ground so fast you can see them grow from day to day, and spinach and lettuce and rhubarb also will soon turn fields green.

Then, after the strawberries, Long Island farmers will be putting out their biggest crop of the year -- sweet corn. "It will come in after the Fourth of July," Gergela said.

Sweet corn isn't just piled up on tables at the farm stands from Glen Head to Orient. It's become a key part of the agritourism trend -- farmers sell it hot and roasted, and people pay to walk through the fields in corn mazes. No up-to-date list is available yet on which farms will have mazes this year.

Farming is important to Long Island's economy, where there are 644 farms and more than 35,000 acres of farmland. Last year, agricultural sales on Long Island were $7,249 per acre, more than 10 times the state average, according to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's office.

Suffolk is the state's largest producer of pumpkins, cauliflower and tomatoes, and third-largest producer of grapes, peaches and strawberries.

But farmers also see that for the past several years it has been harder to find farm workers, that the costs of fuel and fertilizer keep rising, and that a few days of hard rain at the wrong time can wreak havoc.

One bright new spot in the industry is that a handful of farmers are starting a whole new crop -- hops -- to begin to feed the special demand of microbreweries.

John Condzella Jr. is growing an acre of hops on his family's farm in Wading River, where they have farmed more than 100 years. Next year, he expects to double the crop.

By mid-August they could be ready for harvest -- again depending on the weather.

Two local breweries, in Port Jefferson and Riverhead, are talking to him about getting fresh hops, which are unavailable elsewhere. "Most hops are shipped here from Europe."

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