Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Virginia State News

March 1, 2014

Winter ruins collard green crop in parts of Va.

NORFOLK, Va. — Call it the great collard shortage of ‘14.

From Pungo to Western Tidewater and clear into northeastern North Carolina, fields that should be green with tall, leafy collards are instead striped with limp, yellow rows — the plants splayed out on cold, wet ground.

Ruined. Done for.

Deader than dirt.

“They went kaput,” said John Wilson, owner of New Earth Farm in Pungo, where three beds of collards surrendered to the cold.

Blame a brutal winter that brought record-low temperatures, multiple measurable snowfalls, willful winds and plenty of rain.

“It got ‘em all,” said Bobby Brothers, an Elizabeth City, N.C., farmer who planted 7 acres of cold-weather crops, including rows and rows of collards. “I ain’t seen one of these winters since ‘89.”

Mike Cullipher, a fourth-generation Pungo farmer, lost the better part of an acre of collards to the bad weather.

“It’s the worst I can remember,” he said.

Collards are a hearty, cold-weather crop and as much a tradition on Tidewater tables as striper and country ham. Since colonial times, home cooks have simmered pots full of the greens for hours with pieces of fatty pork called streak-of-lean. Local chefs turn collards into salsa and stir-fry dishes.

The winter season started normally, with local farmers meting out their plantings so the harvest would stretch into spring. The polar vortex nixed those plans.

Dee Scherr has been foraging for local collards without success for the past few weeks. Scherr and her husband own Dave and Dee’s Homegrown Mushrooms in Sedley in Western Tidewater.

The Scherrs rely on a network of local farmers to supply their produce-delivery service to chefs from Richmond to the coast. This year, as they’ve sought the greens, they’ve heard “nope” from farmers as far west as Mechanicsville.

“In the 10 years we’ve been doing business, this has never happened,” she said. “It’s a very rare thing.”

At Five Points Community Farm Market in Norfolk, manager Bev Sell tries to stock produce grown as close to home as possible. The latest delivery of collards came from Georgia.

But specks of green are on the horizon for those who crave the locally grown specialty.

On the Eastern Shore, the crop of certified organic collards at Mattawoman Creek Farms has survived and, despite the shortage, the price has held steady at $2.75 a bunch. They’re sweet but smaller than usual, farmer Rick Felker said.

“We like to think that organic varieties are heartier in general,” he said.

Before the summer heat sets in, fields once again should be flush with local collards. Farmers are sowing seeds in greenhouses for a spring crop that could hit farmers markets within six to eight weeks, about the time that another local favorite usually ripens.

“We’ll see if people like collards with their strawberries,” Cullipher said. “Or not.”

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