Mother Nature’s fickleness challenged N.B. produce growers

by Joan LeBlanc

It was a bumper crop of pumpkins this year at Murray’s Farm Fresh Vegetables. Shelley Murray holds one of the many pumpkins of different sizes for sale at her family’s farm market. (Joan LeBlanc photos)

It was a bumper crop of pumpkins this year at Murray’s Farm Fresh Vegetables. Shelley Murray holds one of the many pumpkins of different sizes for sale at her family’s farm market. (Joan LeBlanc photos)

All of the produce at Murray’s Farm Fresh Vegetables in Point de Bute, N.B., is washed before going into the family farm market. Nathan Murray spray-washes some of the more than 8,000 pumpkins grown on the farm this year, while his father Robert looks on.

All of the produce at Murray’s Farm Fresh Vegetables in Point de Bute, N.B., is washed before going into the family farm market. Nathan Murray spray-washes some of the more than 8,000 pumpkins grown on the farm this year, while his father Robert looks on.

Mother Nature was a bit fickle with her weather conditions this year. That played havoc with some New Brunswick vegetable producers but worked well for others.
“It was wet – we got stuck spreading lime – so we went to other fields we have that are drier,” said Robert Murray, who with his wife Shelley and son and daughter-in-law Nathan and Jessica, own and operate Murray’s Farm Fresh Vegetables in Point de Bute, N.B. “You have to go with the flow, so it really wasn’t a problem for us. This is the best year we’ve ever had for growing vegetables.”
The Murrays have been growing vegetables on their farm for more than 20 years, with 90 percent of the produce sold from their own on-site farm market. The remainder is sold to two retail markets in nearby Sackville.
“We also have beef livestock here on our farm and that produces hundreds of tons of manure, which, along with lots of lime, we use on the fields,” said Robert. “Without the manure, we would have been in trouble too. But if you have the right nutrients in the soil, the plants will grow. People ask if we irrigate. We don’t have to. Everyone was praying for rain, we prayed for crops and thankfully we got it.”
The Murrays grow a vast array of fresh vegetables, including potatoes, carrots, green and yellow beans, beets, Swiss chard, kale, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, turnip, and zucchini, among others. And pumpkins – lots and lots of pumpkins.
“This year we’ve got more than 8,000 pumpkins – some are still in the field – and that’s a conservative count,” said Nathan in late September. “There are all sizes and different colours, from little ones to lots that are 40 pounds or more. And we sell them by the size, not the pound. We grow several different varieties in each species.”
The Murrays do all of the farm work themselves, from preparing the soil to harvesting the crops and everything else in-between.
“We don’t use plastics, we cultivate and weed by hand,” said Robert. “The crops are picked fresh all day, every day, from mid-July until the end of October. We have seven plantings of beans growing now and multiple plantings of other crops. Nathan and I pick by the hour. At the end of the hour, we bring in the produce, wash it, and prepare it for sale.”
Keeping the produce hydrated goes a long way to maintaining its freshness, Nathan added.
“Once it’s picked, we keep it watered so you won’t find wilted vegetables at our market stand,” he said.
While water wasn’t a problem for the Murray operation this year, other producers haven’t been as fortunate. 
At The Pumpkin Lady farm in Jardineville, one kilometre west of Rexton, N.B., things were a bit tougher this year.
“We had eight weeks of dry weather and it didn’t look good for anything, let alone the pumpkins,” said Martha Bowman, who owns and operates The Pumpkin Lady with her husband Stuart. “But we did get a rain after that drought. And the pumpkins, there’s not tons of them, but the ones we did get are a good size and a beautiful colour. So I’m pleased with what we got,” 
The Bowmans irrigate only on an emergency basis, she said, adding, “We may have to look into that for another year.”
But The Pumpkin Lady grows and sells much more than pumpkins.
“We open first for strawberries and go straight through them all – beans, peas, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, hot peppers,” said Bowman. “Everything is growing well, but this year we don’t have the full production that we usually do, due to the drought.”
But as luck would have it, that’s turned out to be in their best interests this year.
“A bridge is being replaced on our road, so we don’t have the heavy traffic like other years and it works to our advantage because the drought kind of set us back,” said Bowman. “We have enough for our regular customers but not for the others who might just be out for a drive and drop in.”
The Pumpkin Lady has been growing steadily since the small operation first began more than 20 years ago. About 15 acres of crops are planted each year and all of the harvested produce is grown on their farm and sold at their roadside farm market. 
In Maugerville, N.B., near Fredericton, the cold, wet spring and subsequent drought took a toll on the Harvey’s Big Potato crops this year. The family-owned farm market – well-known for its giant potato statue greeting customers out front – has been operating at that location for nearly a century. 
Longtime owner Buzz Harvey got a bit of help with crop production this year, farming out some vegetables to former employees. But overall produce yields were down about 25 percent.
“It was cold and miserable this spring,” said Harvey. “It didn’t work out well for me this year because I had to spend all summer irrigating. We were late getting the crops in because it was so wet. Then we got the drought.”
Harvey’s crops included tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, cucumbers, beets, potatoes, and corn. “Corn is one of our big sellers,” he said.
In addition to the farm market along Highway 105, Harvey also supplies some local retail and commercial businesses with fresh vegetables.