Monday, July 18, 2011

2011 off to a slow start

Every season is a different set of growing conditions. This season got off to a slow start with cool, wet weather, then stifling heat, then cold and wet again. So we're about two weeks later than the "norm" if there is such a thing anymore.

Nonetheless, we're finally starting to roll. Peaches arrived on the Market Friday, July 15, about two weeks later than last year. Still, peaches draw people, especially when they're Michigan grown. The first varieties are the cling-stones and the flesh does not easily come off the pit. It can be done, but it takes a practiced hand to cut wedges off the pit, and it's almost impossible to get full halves from an early Michigan cling-stone.

Yet the flavor is pure Michigan. Sweet, intense, juicy.

I'm predicting we'll be in full swing very soon. So come on down and experience Michigan's "terrior."

Lee LaVanway, market master

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In full swing

August throughout the fruit belt has traditionally been the season of diversity and volume. Diversity of crops is what differentiates our agriculture from other production regions; we grow fruit crops that most places cannot. Apricots, plums, peaches and nectarines, and a whole host of other tree fruit cannot be grown consistently without the unique features of our landscape and climate. Thus, wholesale buyers flock to the Market in August to load tree fruit and deciduous, perennial fruit crops like blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries. While here, they also find it convenient to buy crops that are easily grown elsewhere. Summer squash, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and other annual fruit crops are prime examples of these "other" fruit.

In addition to diversity, the Great Fruit Belt of Michigan produces impressive volume. Michigan ranks number one, nation wide, in the production volume of fifteen horticultural crops and ranks in the top ten for almost fifty other crops.

Volume and diversity, these are the reasons folks who know fresh fruit, travel long distances to procure what cannot be reliably produced elsewhere.

So August is the month we're in "full swing." And this August is no exception. Sure, we've had our trials and tribulations with an unusually wet and windy weather pattern, and we've had a full share of heat and humidity. But still we produce!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Market Update

As I have often written, and often said, "every year is different," but I cannot remember any season like this one. This season is going be one for the record books.

I thought having apple bloom open on April 21 was historic, and indeed it was, but that was just the beginning. Strawberries were almost three weeks ahead of "normal" and sweet cherries were being harvested in volume by June 20. We had peaches on the Market in June! Now, we've seen the blueberry variety "Elliot" on the market for almost ten days! It's usually a late August variety, and the last commercial cultivar picked in Michigan. Not this year. It's doubtful we'll even have fresh blueberries by late August!

Still, we're seeing volume increases and I'm thankful for that. And the quality is getting better and better with every dry day. We've had enough rain, and now we need it to stay dry. Moreover, if I had my druthers, we could be a little cooler too. But I'd settle for dry, trust me. Nothing takes the flavor out of fruit faster than a downpour.

Some superb peaches are coming across the Market every day now. Big, red, and sweet. Juicy to the point where one must bend over when taking a bite. I'm talking heavy duty napkin peaches.

There's still jersey blueberries on the market and occasionally, a late pick of bluecrop, but if you want the real sweeties, you need to act fast because elliots are more tart than the former two, and they'll be the primary variety of blueberry before we know it.

Blackberry volume has exploded, and today, we had more blackberries on the Market than the rest of the season combined. Wholesale prices held firm at 34-37 dollars for a 12-pint flat. The variety was "chester."

Plums are prolific with the better varieties coming on now. Redheart, Ozark premier, and Santa Rosa. There's still a few Methley, Early Golden, and of course, Shiro.

A nice load of apricots came on the Market from Traverse City this morning and sold out in less than an hour. The grower said he'd be back again tomorrow (Wednesday the 4th) and Friday. He also brought some nice nectarines and they too sold briskly.

And that reminded me of just what we have down here in the Southwest corner of our state: A great fruit Market! I've often been told by growers coming down from the North and from the Grand Rapids area how they wish they had something like this Market in their neck of the woods. And that's the thing that we too often take for granted, i.e., that we have this opportunity here to not just grow some amazing fruit, but also, to sell it in volume.

Finally, though the weather has put the whammy on us more often than usual, we're still hanging tough. Moreover, I'm seeing evidence of significant demand increases, and more importantly, I'm seeing indisputable evidence of what the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service claimed to be an 18% increase in the numbers of farms in Berrien County, MI alone. That bodes well for everyone here and also, outside the region. So it looks like our fruit belt agriculture engine is once again starting to fire on all cylinders. It's been a fairly long spell of decline, but not as long as other declines throughout our history.

For example, Berrien County, MI was the leading peach producing county in the U.S. during the late 1860's until about 1873 when the disease "Peach Yellows" struck. By 1875, we had no peach orchards left (that's no as in zero). But by 1940, we were once again number one in peaches! Think about that. It's an amazing history, but one that gives me confidence that fruit growing will not die here. We may suffer as our forefathers suffered, but we have always returned to be a powerhouse in production, and in marketing.

In closing, come to the Market. It only costs $5.00 for a day buyer's permit (a ten wheeler pays $10.00 and a semi-truck pays $15.00), and that permit allows anyone to buy at wholesale, direct from the farm families growing the fruit. And if you're a grower, come too! If you grow good fruit, you can sell it here, usually at a significant premium over other what primary channels offer. And, you get paid on the spot.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Market Update

Finally! Though a few farms have had thundershowers resulting in excessive rain, most have stayed reasonably dry. It's been hot, for sure, but I'd rather have it hot than wet. And the worse scenario is wet and hot.

But the weather pattern over the last three weeks has been very good for the most part, and one can easily tell simply by eating the fruit--it's sweet and well-flavored, not full of water and bland tasting.I teach all buyers who want to know how to test for the highest quality to bite the fruit before committing to buying it. Never buy only with your eye. One's tongue holds the right testing device.

We're seeing increased volume on the Market, and that's a good thing because demand has increased, and many buyers have had difficulty securing enough produce. And as I said, quality has improved significantly.

Blueberries will likely be in short supply before what is normally the end of blueberry season. An early start means an early finish. Now is the time to make sure your grower(s) will keep you on their list of preferred buyers. Loyalty to your grower(s) and good rapport with them will work wonders when supplies tighten and only a grower's better customers get the day's pick.

Freestone peaches will likely arrive this week with Redhaven being harvested. The first pick will likely have a fair number of split pits, so keep that in mind. Still, the dry weather has concentrated flavor and sugar, and hopefully, we'll have an excellent quality harvest. Then it's off to the races! Peaches have always made the Market because it's a crop that does well here consistently. We have a very old saying here: "Nothing beats a Michigan peach!"

Sweet corn is almost (not quite) abundant now, and the transition from the early varieties with small ears and variable flavor qualities to main season ones has begun. I'll devote an entire posting to sweet corn soon.

Check our "what's available page" on the web site for more information. And remember: Support your local everything."  

Friday, July 9, 2010

Peaches: A Summer Favorite

Candor peaches from Disterheft Farms, Eau Claire, MI

In Southwestern Michigan, fresh peaches are one of the sure signs that summer is in full swing. From now until late September, you'll be able to find truly world-class peaches at your local farmers' markets, fruit stands, and of course here at the Benton Harbor Fruit Market and online at the Produce Portal. Below you'll find a general guide to selecting, preparing, and preserving Michigan peaches.

Finding the Perfect Peach
Look for even background color and a well-defined crease.  Avoid fruit that is green around the stem (it has been picked before it was suitably ripened) and shriveled skin.  Ripe peaches have a slight give to the flesh - if they are firm to the touch they will need to sit on the counter for a day or two before reaching optimum ripeness (to quicken the process, place the peaches in a paper bag and close the top).  Note that a red blush color on the skin does not necessarily mean a peach is ripe.  To check flavor, simply hold the fruit in your palm and smell with your nose close to the skin.  Ripe peaches can be stored in the crisper bin of your refrigerator for up to five days.

Varieties to Look For
Today, growers produce a staggering array of peach varieties.  The following 10 are common to the Great Lakes area.

  • Garnet Beauty (harvest July 20):  A medium-large, semi-freestone peach with red-blushed yellow skin.  Very sweet.
  • Redhaven (harvest August 1):  The peach that made Michigan famous.  Large and juicy, with light fuzz over firm and creamy yellow flesh.  Great for snacks, canning, and freezing.
  • Bellaire (harvest August 5):  A wonderful whole-tree mutation of the Loring variety.  Great red color, famous Loring taste.
  • Glohaven (harvest August 15):  Large, round, and highly uniform.  Yellow flesh that resists browning - great for canning.
  • Canadian Harmony (harvest August 15):  Medium-large with low fuzz and yellow skin.  A freestone peach with good texture - suitable for any use.
  • Loring (harvest August 20):  A large and attractive peach with a great reputation for eating.  Firm, melting yellow flesh with excellent flavor.
  • Babygold #5 (harvest August 20):  A medium sized peach that is perfect for processing.
  • Cresthaven ( harvest September 1):  Firm and highly colored.  Popular for canning and freezing.
  • Jersey Glo (harvest September 10):  A late-season introduction.  Large and well-colored with excellent flavor.  A freestone peach.
  • Fayette (harvest September 10):  Shy on color, smooth but melting flesh.  One of the best late varieties.

Peaches are delicious simply sliced and eaten or in pies and other common dishes.  Here are a few less common recipes.

Spiced Peaches (source: Local Flavors by Debra Madison)

(makes 1 pint)
  • 4 cups peaches, sliced
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 6 cloves
  • seeds of 3 cardamom pods
  • 1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 12 pieces candied ginger
    1. Peel the peaches and slice 1/2 inch thick.
    2. Place the peaches into a large nonstick skillet. Sprinkle the sugar over the peaches and add the remaining ingredients except for the ginger.
    3. Turn the heat to high in order to get things bubbling, then reduce to medium and cook, stirring every few minutes, until the syrup is thick, about 15-20 minutes.
    4. Remove from stove top and add the ginger. Let cool completely and store in a clean jar and keep refrigerated.
Fresh Peach Chutney (source:  Epicurious, Michael Lomonaco)

(makes 2 1/2 cups)

  • 1/2 cup loosely packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1 large sweet red pepper, seeded, diced 1/4 inch, about 1/2 cup
  • 1 small white onion, peeled and diced, about 1/2 cup
  • 1 small jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced, 2 tablespoons
  • 1/3 cup white raisins
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 pounds firm, fresh peaches, blanched to remove the skin, pit removed, sliced into wedges
  1. Put the vinegar and both sugars into a non-reactive pot, place over medium heat and bring to a boil.
  2. Add the red pepper, onion, jalapeño, raisins, garlic, ginger, salt and simmer 10 minutes.
  3. Add the peach segments and simmer an additional 5-10 minutes. If the peaches are still firm allow to cook several minutes more. If you would like the syrup thicker you may also allow to cook for a minute or two to reduce liquid.
  4. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 15 minutes in the pot. Serve at room temperature. Transfer all excess to a clean container and refrigerate, covered, for up to one week.

Canning Peaches
To can peaches choose ripe, mature fruit of ideal quality for eating fresh or cooking. Peaches can be packed in very light, light or medium sugar syrup. They can also be packed in water, apple juice or white grape juice. Prepare the liquid syrup and keep it hot. Remove skins from peaches by using a small paring knife or if preferred, dip fruit in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds until skins loosen. Dip quickly in cold water and slip off skins. Cut in half, remove pits and slice to quarters for better fit. When canning Cling peaches before removing skin it is necessary to cut around the peach and down to the pit with a paring knife. Make this cut slightly off center for easier separation. Then while holding peach in the palms of your hands twist fruit in opposite directions to separate halfs. Then use a peach pit knife to remove pit. Be very carefull when cutting out the pit. Push the knife gently downward and under the pit and then around it Drop cut fruit into mixture of 1 gallon water and 2 tablespoons each salt and vinegar. This will help to keep peaches from darkening. When all the fruit has been cut, rinse with water and drain before packing. Cold Pack into sterilized jars and cover with boiling sugar syrup leaving 1/2 inch head space. Run a rubber spatula or table knife gently between peaches and jar to release trapped air bubbles. Add more syrup if needed. Wipe rim and screw threads with a clean damp cloth. Add lid, screw band and tighten firmly and evenly. Do not over tighten. Place jars on rack of hot water bath canner, slowly and gently, lower rack bring water back to boil and process using the hot water bath method.

After processing, remove jars immediately, place on a rack to cool. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


July 06, 2010

There here! This morning we had Flamin Fury PF1, Candor, and Harrow Diamond on the Market. There were a whole lot of split pits, but the recent dry weather has concentrated the sugars and flavor making them sweet and tasty.

There is little doubt among peach experts that SW Lower Michigan is one of the top three places in the world to grow peaches, and as for me, it's the number one place. Our sandy soils and usually dry summers just make ideal conditions for peach growing. Here's hoping for continued dry weather....

As for other farm products on the market now, we're seeing some fine, "hard as bullets" sweet cherries coming in from  Northern Michigan. Ulster seems to be the primary variety right now, but I expect to see other great sweet varieties for at least another ten days or so. See our "Available Now" page for details about other farm products.

Finally, with the recent string of dry weather, everything is tasting a whole lot better, and everything is showing a vastly improved shelf life, especially berries.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Home Preservation: Cucumber, Summer Squash, and Green Beans

The University of Illinois hosts a great website on home gardening that includes basic vegetable information, recipes, and other tips.  I have included some preservation techniques from this site below.  Many more can be found at

Pickling cucumbers from Harner Farms, Eau Claire, MI

Refrigerator Dill Chips
Pickled cucumbers add spice and texture to sandwiches and meals. For highest quality pickles, use cucumbers that are no more the 24 hours from the vine. Use "pure" or pickling salt in this recipe. Table salt contains additives that make a cloudy brine and off color pickles.
  • 2 to 2-1/2 cups sliced cucumbers, about 1/4 inch thick
  • 2-1/2 teaspoons pickling salt
  • 2 springs fresh dill, about 6 inches long or 1 tablespoon dry dill seed or 1 head of fresh dill
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
Prepare the jar, lid and screwband. Wash them in hot soapy water, rinse well and drain. Combine the sliced cucumbers and 1-1/2 teaspoons of the pickling salt. Toss well. Cover with cold water and let stand for 2 to 3 hours. Drain.
In a clean, hot, 1 pint jar, put the dill, garlic, and remaining 1 teaspoon pickling salt. Add the cucumbers slices leaving 1/2 inch head space. Push slices down and firmly pack. Combine water and vinegar and bring to a boil. Pour hot vinegar solution over cucumbers.
Use a plastic knife or spatula to release air bubbles. Insert knife down the side of the jar and gently push cucumber slices toward the center so that the vinegar solution gets between the slices. Pour on more hot vinegar solution if necessary. Leave 1/2 inch headspace (the space between the rim of the jar and its contents). Wipe the rim. Put the lid and screwband in place. Refrigerate for six weeks before eating.

Summer Squash

Summer squash grown at Twin Maple Orchards, Galien, MI

Canning is not recommended because the tender summer squash will simply turn to mush during processing, unless you are making pickles. Zucchini can be substituted for cucumbers in some pickle recipes. The results are especially good in your favorite recipes for Bread and Butter Pickles.
Blanch and freeze cubes or slices of summer squash or grate and freeze Zucchini, unblanched for making Zucchini bread. The best way to use over grown (10 to 12 inches) zucchini is to grate it and use in zucchini bread. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and cut away the seedy middle section. Wash, grate and freeze in one cup portions. Use zip closure freezer bags or rigid freezer containers leaving 1/2 inch head space. Over size zucchini can also be used to make canned zucchini chutney. The over 12-inch monsters should go on the compost heap.

Green Beans
Green beans, also from Twin Maple Orchards

Green beans can be frozen, dried or canned. Immature beans retain more color and undergo less texture and flavor loss during freezing. All vegetables must be blanched before freezing. Unblanched vegetables quickly become tough and suffer huge nutrient and color loss. Vegetables naturally contain an active enzyme that causes deterioration of plant cells, even during freezing. Blanching before freezing retards the enzyme activity.
Freezing does not improve the quality of any vegetable. Freezing actually can magnify undesirable characteristics. For instance, woodiness in stalks become more noticeable upon thawing. Select vegetables grown under favorable conditions and prepare for freezing as soon after picking as possible. Vegetables at peak quality for eating will produce best results in the freezer.
  1. In a blanching pot or large pot with a tight fitting lid, bring 5 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
  2. Meanwhile, wash beans, trim stem ends and cut into1-inch pieces or leave whole.
  3. Blanch no more than one pound at a time. Add beans to boiling water and immediately cover with a tight fitting lid.
  4. Start timing immediately and blanch for four minutes.
  5. Prepare an ice water bath in a large 5-quart container or the sink.
  6. Remove beans from water with slotted a spoon or blanching basket.
  7. Immerse in the ice water bath for five minutes or until cooled. If you do not have ice, use several changes of cold water or running cold water. Remove and drain.
  8. Pack cold beans in zip-closure freezer bags or freezer containers. Squeeze out as much air as possible before sealing bags.
  9. Label and date each container or bag. Immediately place in the freezer, allowing an inch of space around each container until it is frozen. Freeze for up to one year at 0 degrees F. or below.
  10. Blanching water can be used over and over again. Add more water if necessary. Remember to always bring water back to a rolling boil before blanching more vegetables.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Supplies are building steadily

An active Market today should result in the best day of the year (so far) tomorrow.

Blueberries are surprisingly sweet, plump, and tasty, but blueberries don't have the same hatred of rain as do other berries. Volume is building...Weymouth, Bluetta, Early Blu, Duke, and next week, maybe the first Bluecrop. Excellent size this year.

Sweet cherries from the North will arrive tomorrow, maybe a few strawberries from Alpena.

Black raspberries, red raspberries...don't buy more than you can sell in a day or two.

It wouldn't surprise me to see the first local peaches of the season tomorrow. 

Sunday, June 20, 2010


No one wants the season to get going more than I do. But at the end of the day, Mother Nature controls. Natural events (heat, rain, wind, etc), play a significant role in agriculture; they always have, and until we can control the growing conditions completely, they always will.

Nonetheless, I'm seeing an increase of product available almost every day. Volumes are still way low, but I can see light...and soon, if this year's bizarre weather pattern gets back to an historical norm, we'll take flight.

So patience is the watchword now....

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sweet Cherries

I admit my favorite fruit depends upon the season, but it's hard to beat a SW Michigan sweet cherry, and our strawberry season wasn't the best--too much rain and too hot. I had some really good strawberries though, and I'm reminded that elsewhere in the country, growing conditions have been far worse.

And that's one of the competitive advantages of our Great Fruit Belt: year in and year out we're going to have better growing conditions than most other agriculture production regions.

Now, we're on the cusp of sweet cherry season, and a few are beginning to trickle onto the Market. By the end of the week, we should see some volume.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention red raspberries are being harvested now, along with zucchini squash, sugar snap peas, English garden peas, and I expect new red potatoes any day now.

The season is early, way early, and it looks like the weather may straighten out for a long-term period of "dry and seasonable." That's what we need...and want.