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Produce prices might mean new markets, new gardeners

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Catherine W. Idzerda
April 6, 2014

JANESVILLE—This summer, if you want an affordable salad, you're either going to have to get your hands dirty or find a local source for your greens.

A severe drought in California means that many of the salad bowl crops grown there, such as lettuce and tomatoes, are going to increase in price.

“The longer the drought goes on, the higher prices are going to go up,” said Steven Deller, UW-Madison professor of agriculture and applied economics.

What kind of increase should we expect for, say, a head of lettuce?

“It could double if not triple,” Deller said. “We don't know, yet, how the market will respond.”

It's possible international markets will fill the gap with produce from Mexico or elsewhere, Deller said.

To prepare readers for the summer ahead, we offer three choices:

FOR THE DIRT-AVERSE

Find a CSA that meet your needs.

CSA stands for community-supported agriculture and refers to a farm that allows people to sign up for a season's worth of vegetables. Some CSAs also offer shares of flowers, cheese, honey, meat, eggs and other products.

Being part of a CSA means that you buy a “share” in the farm and accept some of the risk.

But a CSA allows you to be closer to where your food is grown, and you'll be surprised to find how much better vegetables taste. Fresh tomatoes and carrots are especially surprising and seem like different creatures from similarly named items in a grocery store.

If you're worried about getting too many vegetables, consider splitting a share with a friend or signing up for an every-other-week option.

Another choice is the local farmer's market.

Some experts caviled at this advice.

“If they're going to curl their nose at $2 for a head lettuce, they're not going to pay $3 a head at the farmers market,” Deller said.

But Deller's closest farmers market is in Madison, where the populace tolerates $3 heads of lettuce. 

Produce available at local farmers markets might be slightly more expensive than the grocery store but will be less likely to have been subjected to mysterious pesticides and herbicides.

To find your local CSA, try the Farm Fresh Atlas. CSA's often advertise in the lobby of Basics Cooperative, 1711 Lodge Drive, Janesville. The store also is a drop-off point for Tipi Produce and Amazing Grace Family Farm.

FOR THE DIRT AMBIVALENT

You can grow vegetables in pots, said Mark Dwyer, director of horticulture at Rotary Botanical Gardens.

The botanical gardens plants sale, which takes place May 10 and 11, will include a variety of pot-friendly vegetable varieties, including hot peppers, sweet peppers, eggplant and tomatoes.

Dwyer's recommendations included:

-- Use pots with decent drainage at least 12 inches deep. Pots 18 to 24 inches deep are better.

-- Use good soil. At Rotary, staff use a combination of soil-less mix and mushroom compost. Consult your local nursery for the right mix.

Dwyer also recommends a slow release, pelleted, fertilizer. Plants might also need additional liquid fertilizer throughout the season.

-- As the summer heats up, you'll have to water container plants almost every day.

Dwyer said he and his family grow most of their vegetables in containers.

“It's a great idea,” Dwyer said. “You can walk 12 steps to get fresh basil rather than getting into your car and burning a gallon of gas.”

For more information about growing vegetables in containers, consult the UW Extension.

Those who want a summer of lettuce greens can try the Mike Maddox method. Maddox, state director of UW Extension Wisconsin Master Gardener Volunteer Program, grows lettuce and salad greens in containers on his porch. 

Lettuce thrives in cool weather.

As soon as the weather warms up, Maddox moves the lettuce to a shady spot on the porch.

FOR THOSE WHO DELIGHT IN DIRT

Start your own garden.

Start small. Spring infuses all gardeners, even those who have been at it for years, to get overly ambitious in the spring.

Start by tucking a tomato plant into the flowerbed. Make your own raised bed using untreated cedar supported on the outside by long stakes driven into the ground.

Dig up a square of grass in a sunny spot, blend some mushroom compost into the tired soil and get growing.

All new gardeners will benefit from browsing through Dewey Decimal System number 635, where they will find beginning gardening books.



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