Weather & farm planning

Weather and crop management will always be inextricably linked; this has been especially true in the screwy recent weather patterns. As we transition, at least temporarily, from record spring warmth to a series of seasonal frosts/freezes, here’s a discussion of how weather considerations have affected both short- and long-term planning on the farm this spring.
The weather was of great concern to us during the record-warm March, because the very early start for so many things raised continued fears of an April 2007-type late hard freeze. So far, it seems the first half of April will be dominated by actual seasonal conditions, which means a series of milder but still concerning frosts. We’ve had frosts every evening since Thursday, with especially strong freezes expected Tuesday & Wednesday nights this week (the National Weather Service is currently issuing various forms of frost/freeze advisories for northern and parts of central Missouri). These conditions are a mixed blessing, as they are a serious threat to both agricultural and natural plants that got off to an early start, but on the other hand will greatly benefit the cool-season springs crops that want these conditions.

Strawberries, for example, have blossoms that are frost-sensitive yet have gotten off to a very early start; ours are many weeks ahead of last year and are loaded with flowers and developing green berries. Thus we need to cover our beds every night there’s a risk of frost, which is getting old quickly. Above left, strawberry blossoms on the edge of one bed, which I left uncovered as a test, with ice on them Friday morning. The sheets & row cover we use for protection has been frozen so solid several nights so far that it holds its shape when picked up. However, lettuce like the young head above center can survive frosts just fine, and will likely develop a sweeter flavor under these conditions. These conditions may indeed benefit the flavor &/or texture of many of the cool-season crops in the ground right now. On the other hand, some trees that have gotten a head start on spring can be damaged: above right is a young pecan tree we established last year, with its first emergent leaves heavily burned back by Thursday’s frost. The stronger freezes expected this week have us worried about our blueberries, and whether simply covering the strawberries will be enough.

We’ve been juggling some difficult decisions on whether to push forward much of our planting plan or remain conservative to avoid risk. Overall we’ve taken the conservative approach, feeling that the risk of losing crops or overloading ourselves with work is worse than the risk of making CSA members wait a few more weeks to get produce at a “normal” time. The burgeoning weed-load is another reason not to rush beyond our plan; every grower (and gardener) we’ve talked to has bemoaned the crush of weeds getting a head start on the season. The weed-load isn’t just an issue of crop competition; especially vibrant ones like chickweed are rapidly setting massive amounts of seed, faster than it can be managed, setting us up for years of future work. We’ve hauled multiple truckloads out of the field, feeding some to the chickens (who love the stuff) and are spreading more on eroded or thinly vegetated areas of hillside pastures.

We feel farming is enough of a gamble without betting more on the roulette wheel of unusual weather, particularly on a full-time diversified farm with a carefully balanced year-round workload. Our planting plans integrate multiple different crops throughout the year in closely spaced rotations, such that we can’t move many warm-weather things forward without displacing the spring crops already planted. Getting ahead of ourselves would also create more work when conditions change; if we’d already set out tomatoes and peppers, for example, we’d now be scrambling to protect them every night, too, making far more work for ourselves for no additional return. As it is, we have a large quantity of nice-looking transplants indoors that we’ll have to hold back until we’re more comfortable with upcoming temperatures.

This conservative, diversified approach is far more efficient overall for us, especially in a CSA setting where the focus is one delivering products throughout the year and not squeezing profit out of every market sale, and we’re overall comfortable sticking to our plans. It’s something for CSA members to remember if they wonder why some of our crops arrive later than other sources who might not be managing diversified farms or carefully planned crop rotations. We value stability and careful planning very highly, and feel that focus serves us well in the long-term gamble of a full-time farm.

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