07/08/09 — Cucumber harvest strong despite disease

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Cucumber harvest strong despite disease

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on July 8, 2009 1:43 PM

Cucumbers, once a major crop in North Carolina, have become steadily more rare over the past decades, and farmers still producing the lean, green vegetable are having to deal with increased expenses and occasional disease incursions while the cucumbers are on the vine.

While there are still many acres dedicated to the crop, Bill Jester, specialty crops coordinator and extension associate horticulturist at North Carolina State University said that fewer farmers are growing them than in previous years.

"There's usually around 1,000 to 1,500 acres of cucumbers, raised mainly for pickles," Jester said.

There are many kinds of diseases that can strike even the hardier varieties of the hot weather crop, and farmers have to stay on their toes from year to year watching out for them.

"This year's been a fairly tough year because we've had problems with downy mildew," Jester said. "It's a particular disease that's devastating."

Downy mildew is a crop disease that most often affects cucumbers and cantaloupes. It invades from the south and travels northward, affecting growing cucumbers that are exposed to constantly damp soil. N.C. State is trying to track the disease's progression and give farmers warning, Jester said.

"We run a survey or a program that detects the movement of it and we keep the farmers notified on a Web site as to its movement," he said. "Some of them were able to control it before it destroyed the crop."

Prevention of this type of mold is different than other types of disease because the plants must be sprayed at a particularly critical period of plant development, Jester explained.

And bringing in the crop has its own set of challenges, physically and financially.

"Most of the cucumbers in Wayne County are still harvested by hand. Because of labor expense, we're looking more and more toward machine harvest in the future," Jester said. "That's the biggest change since I've been in North Carolina, since I came to North Carolina 30 years ago."

Back then, there were hundreds of people growing cucumbers, with over 30,000 acres of the state's farmland dedicated to the crop.

"Today it's probably about 15,000 and maybe 150 farmers," Jester said.

Globalization of the food market has something to do with that, reducing the necessity of locally-grown produce.

"There's still a need for the product, but some of the product comes in from Mexico and other parts of the world," he said. "Farms have gotten bigger and labor has become more expensive."

However, some companies, like Mt. Olive Pickle Co. in Mount Olive, benefit from buying locally when they can.

It not only supports local farmers, it also cuts costs on the manufacturer's end, said Lynn Williams, spokesperson for Mt. Olive Pickle Co.

Reducing the distance a cucumber has to travel to get from the field to a processing facility brings the overall price down for the company.

"The local crop is our least expensive crop to get here," she said.

One third of all the cucumbers and peppers the company purchases comes from North Carolina growers, and Mt. Olive Pickle Co. buys about 140 million pounds of cucumbers and peppers a year.

The early summer months are the "green season" for cucumbers, and therefore also for the pickle company. The company hires seasonal workers to help keep up with the amount of processing necessary during the cucumber harvest.

"We usually have about 300 extra (workers)," Ms. Williams said. "We have increased numbers of cucumbers coming in."

Mildew problems notwithstanding, the produce coming in from this year's harvest has been good, she said.

"It's been a really good crop in North Carolina," Ms. Williams said. "When you have plentiful, quality cucumbers, that's always a good thing."