Spring has sprung

Local farmers prepare season’s first produce

Michael and Diane Schwebach of Schwebach Cedar Hill Farms stand within the hoop house where they just planted tomato, pepper and cucumbers in the ground that they started from seed at their farm near Aztec, N.M. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Michael and Diane Schwebach of Schwebach Cedar Hill Farms stand within the hoop house where they just planted tomato, pepper and cucumbers in the ground that they started from seed at their farm near Aztec, N.M.

It’s the first time you see bluebirds, the first day you take off your sweatshirt, the first night you get home before dark.

It’s spring and it’s here.

If you’re a home cook, you’ve been filling your table with potatoes and beets, Brussels sprouts and broccoli, winter stews and roast meats. But daylight saving time is back, temperatures have bested 60 degrees and animal tracks no longer appear in the snow. You dream of firing up the grill, searing a ruby red piece of tuna and biting into the crunchy sugar snap peas local farmers will soon provide.

You fantasize about the area’s very first vegetable of spring, tender asparagus, in salads, under béchamel sauce, snuggled next to the chicken on the grill, and you wait – about one more week, two at the most – for it to arrive at local farm stands and health food stores.

By mid to late-April, greens of every sort start coming in, from the sunflower microgreens at SongHaven Farm in Cahones to the kale and spinach at Rohwer’s Farm in Pleasant View to the lettuce from the Gardens at James Ranch just north of town.

By the time the Durango Farmers market opens May 11, your meals will start to fill with spiky spring onions, sweet sugar snap peas, delicate chard, aromatic basil, and if we’re lucky, tart rhubarb. There’s nothing like tangy-sweet rhubarb strawberry pie to make winter fade away.

The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather may not – some area farms still have snow. So just when does spring arrive in Southwest Colorado?

For Rusty Connor, whose Dirt Road Farm northwest of Bayfield sits at 8,000 feet, spring starts when the spinach she planted in the dead of winter starts growing at a riotous pace.

Michele Martz, who owns SongHaven with her husband, knew spring was here when a flock of Canadian geese, hundreds strong, flew overhead.

For Leslie Kerby, who grows fruit trees on 20 acres near Farmington, it’s easy enough to tell.

“Spring is when the leaves start swelling on the trees and they’re close to popping open,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of things to do before they pop.”

For Kerby and other farmers, spring signifies that their hardest days lie ahead. Kerby has cut off tree limbs to stimulate the fruit buds, hauled the brush out of the orchard, set up 1,000 natural-gas heaters and two giant wind machines – like helicopters turned sideways – to protect his apricot and peach crop from freezing.

Heidi Rohwer and her mother, Judy, have already cleaned up the asparagus patch, cleaned out the hen house, fixed the tractor and corralled nieces, nephews and any other willing body to help plant 20,000 onions.

“It’s amazing how few friends we have when onion planting comes around,” she said.

And Michael Schwebach, whose Schwebach Cedar Hill Farm lies just across the New Mexico border, is busy laying manure in the field, putting new plastic on the hoop house and planting the earliest-at-the-market tomatoes. He nurtured them through the cold days by placing them on the warm in-floor heat of his bathroom under sunny grow-lights.

Schwebach, a lifelong farmer, says even his body knows that it’s spring.

“In wintertime, I like to hibernate, to sleep more. Spring, it’s a shock to the system when you work that hard,” he said.

It’s small wonder that anything grows in the harsh geography and forbidding climate of the Four Corners, with late frosts, tropical-force winds and scarce water. So it’s nothing short of a miracle when that first asparagus crests the mound or the initial basil leaf appears.

Local farmers go to extraordinary lengths to produce the fresh fruit and vegetables restaurant chefs and home cooks adore and expect. They grow seedlings in heated greenhouses, plant even hearty vegetables indoors in winter, build hoop houses (those half-pipe shaped structures dotting the roadside) to keep out the wind and cover crops to prevent them from freezing. And most use organic practices.

Many local farmers said this winter was better than last, with more snow and colder temperatures leading to moister, more pliable soil. Jennifer Wheeling of the Gardens at James Ranch transplanted her asparagus to the field last week and said it was a piece of cake compared with last year, when the ground was hard as concrete.

Martz is enthusiastic about the season, saying her fields have more water from snowpack than last year and the soil is filled with worms. But now she’s concerned about the area’s notorious spring winds, causing her to cover most of her crops.

Spring is a farmer’s prime time to worry.

“This is cardiac time of year,” said Wheeling.

Frost is the enemy of fruit and vegetables. While last spring was unusually warm, a major frost descended on Memorial Day, killing all of Wheeling’s strawberries, apricots and plums and decimating her tiny red currants. These days, she keeps a flashlight by the bed and an eye on the thermometer.

“I’ve laid awake at night and watched it go 36, 35, 34 and then it’s, ‘OK honey, we’ve got to go,’” she said, describing waking her unhappy husband and daughters at 3 a.m. and hauling them out to the fields to cover crops.

Kerby empathizes. It takes just six minutes for frost to set in and destroy an entire crop of apricots or peaches. It can be 25 degrees on the ground, but 40 just above. That’s when he cranks up his 18-foot propellers fueled by 392 Ford industrial engines to push the warm air down and fires up the gas heaters.

Farmers at lower elevations, in plush California valleys or the year-round warmth of Florida fields, just wouldn’t understand.

“They rely on the good Lord and good luck, but I have to do better than that,” he said.

And we can’t do better than the delicious, first of spring produce coming our way. Asparagus, anyone?

phasterok@durangoherald.com

Diane Schwebach, of Schwebach Cedar Hill Farms, inspects a basil plant within a hoop house where she and her husband, Michael Schwebach, grow vegetables near Aztec, N.M. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Diane Schwebach, of Schwebach Cedar Hill Farms, inspects a basil plant within a hoop house where she and her husband, Michael Schwebach, grow vegetables near Aztec, N.M.

Diane Schwebach displays the root ball of a pepper plant she and her husband, Michael Schwebach, started from seed in the bathroom of their home near Aztec, N.M. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Diane Schwebach displays the root ball of a pepper plant she and her husband, Michael Schwebach, started from seed in the bathroom of their home near Aztec, N.M.

A young basil plant grows within a hoop house at Schwebach Cedar Hill Farms near Aztec, N.M. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

A young basil plant grows within a hoop house at Schwebach Cedar Hill Farms near Aztec, N.M.

Diane Schwebach, of Schwebach Cedar Hill Farms, touches a fragile first bloom of a tomato plant she and her husband Michael Schwebach have started from seed in the bathroom of their home near Aztec, N.M. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Diane Schwebach, of Schwebach Cedar Hill Farms, touches a fragile first bloom of a tomato plant she and her husband Michael Schwebach have started from seed in the bathroom of their home near Aztec, N.M.

Diane Schwebach of Schwebach Cedar Hill Farms stands within the hoop house where her and and husband Michael just planted tomato, pepper and cucumbers that they started from seed at their farm near  Aztec, N.M. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Diane Schwebach of Schwebach Cedar Hill Farms stands within the hoop house where her and and husband Michael just planted tomato, pepper and cucumbers that they started from seed at their farm near Aztec, N.M.