Crop production strategies: resilience to cold spring weather

The current cold & wet spring situation means that CSA distributions are not going to get off to as early a start as last year. We hate that this sounds like an excuse, but the reality is that soil temperatures dictate our ability to successfully plant, and those have remained below critical thresholds. Adverse weather tends to make us think though strategies that can help us to better handle a repeat of such conditions. What follows is our current analysis of the options, along with what we’re already doing and what we plan to do differently for the future; these plans reflect our philosophy of low-budget economic & environmental sustainability.
Strategies to better achieve the goal of getting Chert Hollow farm produce into the bellies of our CSA members in a timely manner, even in uncooperative conditions of wet/cold springs:

1) Use permanent, no till beds that need minimal soil disturbance prior to planting. (Implemented) We generally only need to disturb the upper inch or so of soil prior to planting, just to get rid of any overwintered weeds. This means that we don’t have to wait for the soil profile to dry out down to a machine-tillable depth; we just need enough sun/wind to dry out the soil surface, then we can give a light pass with a scuffle hoe (at least if the weeds aren’t too bad). Then we’re ready to plant the moment the soil temperature is appropriate and not waterlogged. In some cases, we can even pick and choose the driest spots in a designated area for the first succession planting, and in this way we avoid doing damage to the soil that comes from working mucky soil too soon. This allows us to get an early start on a cold/wet spring relative to machine-reliant farms.

2) Rely on perennials to get early spring harvests underway. (Moving forward with plans for expansion) Perennials such as asparagus, sorrel, rhubarb, and some herbs can produce nice, early harvests because they’re drawing on resources stored in previous growing seasons. Though they often don’t yield as much per unit area as annual vegetables, the advantage that they don’t have to be planted anew every year is a big one, and when it comes to early spring, there is no battle with cold and mud to get them in the ground. Sorrel and herbs are the only perennials that we have enough of to distribute to CSA members at this point, but we are planning to expand the asparagus patch and add a good amount of rhubarb. This takes time, though, and 2015 is the earliest we could have meaningful quantities of these. Perhaps we’re crazy, but we’re also trying to grow ramps (a wild allium) in some of our woodland habitat that we think might be appropriate for them; we planted some bulbs this spring, though it might be years before harvest (if ever). Some other intriguing perennials that we’ve recently read about may go on our list of plants to trial for 2014.

3) Select and/or breed annual vegetables & varieties that are cold hardy and that can be harvested over the winter or when fresh growth starts in spring. (Implemented with plans for expansion/diversification) Spinach overwinters well. Some strains of collards and kale can overwinter and put on a harvest-able pulse when the weather warms in spring. Many alliums (green onions, green garlic) can get off to a start in the fall and be ready for early spring harvest. We’ve learned that parsnips survive winter cold in-ground, but in only 1 of 3 winters have they gotten past hungry voles. Overwintered crops can provide a nice pulse of early spring food, though we’ve experienced more variable results with overwintered crops than with same-season harvested annuals. Breeding for crops with good genetics for winter hardiness is one approach to improve the reliability. One farm that has been doing so is Even’ Star Farm in Maryland. Their Ice Bred winter-hardy vegetable seed is now being offered through Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We’re hoping to get our hands on some seed and give these veggies a try. Though we’re excited to see how these seeds perform, we’re not expecting magical results given that Even’ Star’s location near the Chesapeake Bay means that their winter temperatures are probably more buffered than ours. These seeds may, however, provide a good baseline for us to do some of our own seed saving and selection.

4) Build a high tunnel. (No plans for implementation) High tunnels can be an effective way to circumvent problems of wet & cool ground in spring, allowing for earlier plantings in a protected environment. However, they also have their downsides, such as being susceptible to collapse in snow, which basically results in an expensive pile of bent metal and torn plastic. We know of at least one collapsed tunnel in the region this winter (and others in past winters), and we’ve talked to farmers who have been up at all hours of the night to protect tunnels from accumulating snow. High tunnels have their benefits and we understand why some people love them, but they involve too much risk, expense, plastic, specialized management, and off-season bother for our approach to farming.

5) Use low tunnels. (Some implementation) Mini-high tunnels can be made by temporarily stretching clear plastic on low hoops to warm & dry soil on an accelerated schedule (or to protect crops over the winter). We make use of this method in targeted ways, particularly to prepare ground for transplants that are behind schedule in going out. However, this approach can consume a lot of effort and materials for what sometimes turns out to be only a slight benefit. Low tunnels can be susceptible to snow collapse, high winds, and other weather issues, as well.

6)  Have sufficient greenhouse space to be able to handle a backlog of transplants if conditions don’t cooperate. (Room for improvement) One problem we’re facing now is that we’re running out of space for transplants. This is in part a byproduct of last year’s warmth, because we decided not to put a lot of effort into fully insulating the greenhouse last year when it wasn’t needed. Now we need to do some upgrades.

7) Rely on diversity. (Core farm principle) This is integral to how we do everything, but it is worth repeating. We won’t know ahead of time what crops will work and what won’t in any given year, but if we grow enough different things, there will almost certainly be a variety of interesting foods to eat & distribute to members. Compare to the commodity crop model: corn, soy, & government crop insurance.

8)  Preserve enough veggies to  not be overly reliant on early spring harvests for vegetable consumption. (Implemented in our household; adding to website to share our favorite food preservation methods with members) We always start to crave the fresh spring food by this time of year, but early harvests aren’t essential to being able to eat local & diverse food at this time of year if enough of the previous year’s harvests were preserved. Our own larders are still well stocked with all sorts of frozen, dried, and canned produce from last year’s prolific production, and we’re happy if some of our 2012 members are still enjoying their own preserves as well.

9) Grow storage crops that can last until spring. (Partially implemented) We still have some very nice sweet potatoes and good-enough garlic on hand that we intend to send out in the next share. The advantage of crops such as these is that we don’t need extra electricity to store them; we have places in the house that meet their needs reasonably well. Crops that require cooler conditions (root vegetables, for example) would require extra infrastructure (such as a root cellar) or electricity (such as a walk-in cooler that is also set up to not go into deep freeze). That kind of infrastructure isn’t in our immediate plans, but others do make use of such methods. For example, Pam Dawling, a farmer in Virginia, writes that an abundance of stored carrots will let them back off on their spring carrot planting to help manage the anticipated work load crunch of this spring.

10) Work towards long-term farm improvement when the weather puts a hold on the short-term planting. (Implemented) Though we haven’t been able to direct seed or transplant our spring-started crops yet, we’ve been working towards long term goals: improving the soil with biochar, clearing field-border trees that are robbing water & sun from growing areas, working on infrastructure, planning for the short & long term, and more. These projects won’t contribute to immediate crop production, but they do put the farm in a better position for years to come.

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