Anticipating early & late frosts

Learning to understand and predict local weather is a really important skill for properly managing our diversified farm. There are so many ways that weather conditions can hinder or help our work, and general forecasts don’t always cover what we need to know. Case in point,  predicting when we’re going to have a frost in our valley regardless of whether it’s regionally expected.This skill can mean the difference between significant crop loss and success at extending/completing our growing season. You’d never know it from the muggy, high-80s conditions this week, but we saw last week’s three nights of frost coming. Continue reading

Early April farm happenings

Spring has finally arrived in our valley, and with vigor. In just the past week of warm weather, an intense flush of green growth has invigorated the grasses, weeds and wildflowers everywhere we look. Lots of spring birds are arriving, while a diverse chorus of frogs provides background ambiance.  The very slow start to spring pushed our outdoor work far behind as we waited for the soil to dry & warm. Finally, last week’s dry spell allowed us to undertake a marathon week of bed prep, seeding, transplanting, and more, exhausting ourselves thoroughly while enjoying finally moving forward with the growing season. This important work was cut off by the recent swath of strong storms which dumped over 2″ of rain, very heavy at times, and caused various problems with flooding and erosion (with minimal problems in the growing area, but roads especially aren’t pretty). And, of course, this once again slows down our planting & seeding plans while we wait for things to dry out.  We  could really use a nice, long stretch of pleasant weather, however unlikely that is in a typical Missouri April (the upcoming forecast has repeated rounds of rain again). Read on for some photos of early spring on the farm, and a glimpse of the first new crops of the year. Continue reading

Bird list & other natural events, March 2013

We could not imagine two months much different than March of 2012 and 2013. Last year we basically had May in March, getting the natural & growing season off to a worryingly early start. Now the opposite is true; it stayed so cold and snowbound most of the month that we’re as far behind now as we were ahead in 2012. Compare the two monthly temperature graphs below for March 2012 and 2013 in Columbia, from the National Weather Service. The average high for March 2013 (47.5 F) was lower than the average low for March 2012 (48.4 F); for reference the normal average is 55.3 (high) & 34 (low). The paired photos in this post also vividly demonstrate the difference.

march_temp_graphs Continue reading

Contrasting spring weather & CSA implications

It’s hard to imagine a more striking contrast in weather conditions than the springs of 2012 and 2013 here. Last year, spring came absurdly, worryingly early and forced us into an unexpectedly quick start to the growing season, distributing CSA share #2 weeks before we expected. This year, three strong winter storms within a month have shut down our progress toward spring preparations and planting, and will delay the 2013 CSA season as much as last year accelerated it. To date, the average high for March 2013 (46ºF with a few days to go in the month) is lower than the average low for March 2012 (48.4ºF). To illustrate these wild swings in weather & growing conditions, here are two sequences of photographs from the two years, taken at the same locations within a day of each other. Continue reading

Handling winter storms on a homestead farm

Two strong winter storms over the past week offer an excellent chance to examine how a farm like ours can both benefit and suffer from winter weather. While these storms created a variety of problems for us, our long-term focus on diversification and self-sufficiency in both business and personal life really paid off under these conditions. Here’s a look at what happened, and how it’ll affect us in both the short and long term. Continue reading

A diversified vegetable farm in drought

As of July 17th, our portion of central Missouri is now officially in “extreme drought“. The National Weather Service expects most of the Midwest’s drought to “persist or intensify” through October. All of Missouri has now been declared a “disaster area“, with lots of hands being wrung about the real and potential crop losses for corn & soy farmers. Of course, very little attention is being paid to the state of things on other kinds of farms, like local dairies, orchards, and vegetable farms. So here’s a visual tour of the conditions on our farm, all photos taken July 18. It may surprise some folks how good many things look, and this is something to consider when reading about all the financial support given to commodity farms while the work it takes to achieve our relative stability & success is ignored by the government. This post certainly won’t cover everything we have planted, but it gives a good sense of the overall vegetable status, leaving out our pastures which are in far worse shape (but still somewhat greener than many that we’ve seen in the region). And we’re increasingly worried we’re reaching a tipping point where things really do start to go downhill regardless of our efforts. Continue reading


We have not received meaningful rain since the beginning of May, which was officially the 3rd-driest and 4th-warmest on record (since 1890) as measured at the Columbia airport. Although the short-term conditions have been mostly great for vegetable production, long-term this is a real problem as irrigation costs undercut our budget, pastures suffer, and later produce struggles because irrigation just isn’t as widely effective as proper natural rainfall. On the bright side, far fewer weeds than usual have been able to germinate in the dry conditions, so the weed load is relatively light for this time of year, and in general we prefer dry to overly wet conditions. Here’s a closer look at the drought we’re entering or already in depending on your viewpoint, and its ramifications.

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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.
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The downside of dry

It’s been very dry most of the summer; readers of this blog know that. Although the drought has been frustrating at times, we’ll still take this year’s weather over the last few absurdly wet ones and all the issues too much rain causes. But the opposite of bad isn’t necessarily good; farming is the art of keeping your balance as the weather gives you whiplash. While some problems with drought are obvious (plants need water to grow), others are more subtle for non-farmers. Here’s a look at some of the issues we’ve faced in dealing with 3 1/2 months of overly dry conditions here.
First, the conditions we’ve actually seen. Through June, we were in normal to too-wet conditions. We recieved 1.09″ on July 3, and then the spigot was turned off. Since then, we’ve only gotten over .5″ in a day 4 times, never again over an inch. Total on-farm monthly rainfall through July, August, and September was at or below 2″. October has been the driest yet so far.
It’s important to keep in mind that drought (and rain) can be very localized, far more so than temperature. If we’re having a heat wave, likely much of Missouri is too. But rain can be drastically different over short distances, leaving individual farms and plots of land under very different conditions even in one locality.
The image below, from the National Weather Service’s extremely useful and addictive Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service, shows total rainfall across Missouri for the last 30 days (as of 10/14/2011). Our farm is marked with a black dot near the center of the image; note that there is a rainfall difference of nearly 2″ between the northern and southern ends of just our county. The data are pretty accurate for us, at least: we recorded 1.43″ of rain on the farm from 9/13-10/14, right on the 1″-1.5″ line mapped by shades of green. It’s worth noting that the color scheme here could be misleading to some: in my world, red implies drought and green implies lush times, though the opposite is true here (check the scale at right).
Part of the story, though, is that most of that rain has come in sporadic, small doses that never have much effect. Rather than a good one-inch soaker that really filters in and helps crops, the rain since July has mostly been little drizzles that move the dust around and vanish the next day. Over the last week, we technically broke a 21-day dry spell, but only with individual totals of .11″ followed by a windy dry day, then .14″ followed by two windy dry days, such that whatever moisture entered the soil vanished very quickly and never made it to any plants’ root zones in meaningful quantities. Thus even the few inches of rain we’ve had each month this summer is misleading, because almost none of it has actually mattered.
So what?
Irrigation has become a serious issues. Vegetables take a lot of water to grow; a good rule of thumb is 1″/week. At best we’ve had half of that over the summer, and it’s really even less since most of the rainfall has been in small batches that doesn’t soak in. Thus we’ve been running our drip irrigation lines heavily trying to keep things happy. But we’ve started to take the drip lines out in places due to frost, so in places we have had to start using sprinklers, which are far less water-efficient due to wind and evaporation, but can cover larger areas more consistently. Newly seeded or transplanted fall crops, like spinach and strawberries that we intend to overwinter for spring CSA, take extra work to keep alive in these conditions.
The problem has gotten worse toward the end of the season, as we start pulling out production crops and trying to establish dense winter cover crops like oats, rye, and vetch whose job is to grow into a nice thick stand before winter and protect the soil from freezing (or blowing away; see below). Instead, these either haven’t germinated, have taken lots of sprinkler/hose watering to germinate, and/or have barely grown. The paired photos below show one of our northern fields which was planted in rye/vetch almost a month ago in antipication of forecasted rain which never meaningfully materialized. The seeds germinated and grew about an inch, but have looked the same (below right) ever since. This should be a good, lush, soil-protecting stand by now. Instead there are clouds of soil blowing around on windy days, and the plants are alive but barely growing. We have far more bare soil on the farm than we’re comfortable with, but can’t get cover crops to grow well enough in this brutal combination of drought, warm weather, and regular high-wind days that suck the moisture from everything. Even running sprinklers on this field hasn’t had much effect.
Soil hardness increases as the ground dries out. This can make it hard to turn in manure or otherwise work the soil, and has been especially frustrating for handling fences and posts. The portable net fencing we use for goats and pig has gotten harder and harder to set up and move, as the posts won’t go into the rock-hard soil. We had a mass goat escape recently as a fence post just fell over, opening a gap, and a similar thing happened to the pig fence.  As we clean out beds of peppers (below left), tomatoes, cucumbers, and other items that were trellised using T-posts and string, we find that the posts just won’t come out of the hard ground. We’ve been digging them out with shovels one by one: the one shown below right wouldn’t come even with that pit dug around it. Also notice how dry the ground is; most of the pepper plants are healthy, like the one next to Joanna in the photo, but there isn’t much moisture to spare down there and it’s taken a lot of irrigation even so.
Rodents have become more and more frustrating this year. We always have some damage from voles, it’s part of the trade-off for permanent no-till vegetable beds, but they’ve been especially aggressive in tunnelling and damaging things this year. We think it’s largely due to the drought; the only water available on the farm comes from our irrigation lines, and the voles naturally tunnel along right underneath, messing up the root zones, collapsing plants, and eating root crops like peanuts which they find there. They can also start gnawing on the irrigation lines themselves, looking for water. Many of our young blueberry plants have been mostly undermined and thus near-killed by rodents; you can practically reach into the caverns excavated within their root masses, where the water is. Snakes are the best defense against rodents, but we’ve seen very few snakes this year for unknown reasons.
Pastures, of course, suffer too. We keep our goats on pasture 24/7 from late spring through fall, rotating them regularly to new ground. Usually this allows the pastures to recover and regrow after grazing, but this year they’ve stayed brown and dead post-grazing. We know we’re managing our pastures well overall because our milk yields this year have been equal to or higher than last year, even with drought-stressed pastures, but we’re now running out of places to graze and the yields have really started to drop. In a wet year we can start over on pastures grazed early in spring, but those haven’t regrown much this year. One farmer at market told me that they normally don’t start feeding out hay to cattle until December, but this year they’ve already started. We’re trying to supplement with bean plants and other farm-generated material, but are having to use more purchased hay than desired as well.
Wind/erosion was mentioned above, but needs more explanation. As soil dries out, it becomes more prone to windblown erosion. We’ve had a lot of windy days this summer, even with our protected valley, and many days you can see soil blowing away. Often this is the really good stuff, and it’s a real loss. We take soil conservation very seriously, it’s one of the benefits of our permanent no-till vegetable beds with sod aisles, but we can do relatively little against windy drought. Mulch can help, but this dry year has struck in the middle of an intentional transition away from purchased straw mulch (expensive, seedy, otherwise problematic) to on-farm mulch sources like aged leaves, meaning we don’t have as much on hand as past years. Increased cover-cropping is another way to hold soil in place, but as discussed above, it’s been much harder to get these to germinate and grow under such dry, windy conditions. We’re losing far less soil than your average bare giant commodity field, but we still care about it. Plus, high winds and low humidities are just personally uncomfortable: we have to drink a lot more water even on cool days and be otherwise careful of conditions.
Pig rooting becomes less effective. One of the side benefits of pasturing a pig is its ability to naturally root up unwanted grass like fescue so we can reseed and improve the pasture: it’s an edible tiller that fertilizes as it goes. However, this year, the ground has been so hard and dry that wherever we put him, the pig hasn’t been able to do much with it. We’ve run a hose and sprinkler out to him, which creates a small wet zone that he indeed has turned up nicely. But that’s not practical at a larger scale, and so we’ve lost most of the year’s potential pasture-improvement benefit. Instead he’s mostly just hard-packed anywhere we’ve pastured him, making things worse instead of better. This one we didn’t see coming.
Still better than monsoon, though. We’d like a nice balanced year sometime, but will keep plugging along with what we get. We’ve seen some form of the two extremes these past two years, from way too wet to way too dry, so are getting a handle on managing both. Overall, dry is better. But is a nice, soaking 1″ of rain too much to ask even once a month?

Handling fall frost

Saturday night we had a good, solid frost here in the valley. It wasn’t our first, we’ve had three light frosts since September 14, but it was by far the strongest and enough to end the season for a number of things. We knew it was coming and prepared as much as practical, including making some choices on what to protect and what we were ready to let go. The average first frost in central Missouri is October 15, while northern Missouri averages around October 1. Given that our narrow valley puts us in a climate setting significantly north of our actual location, an early October frost isn’t terribly unusual.
We’re used to the weather patterns here, in which a clear, still night can result in a frost. Fall always brings a pattern of strong cold fronts that sweep through, with clouds clearing rapidly post-front into a still, clear night that allows cold air to pool and settle on our narrow valley. Any time the overnight  forecast for Columbia reaches 40 or below under these conditions, we know to expect frost. With a forecast of 37 for Saturday night, we knew it would be a real freeze.
Sure enough, when we went out at dawn, frost extended throughout our main field and up the pasture slope beyond. Above left, a frozen-solid sheet protecting tomatoes, taken near 9am as the sun finally started to thaw things out. Above right, some very nice frost crystals on bush bean leaves. We also had a few rows of new kale and collard transplants, which normally can handle frosts, but were so young we covered them just in case. Their cover was frozen solid both nights, but the plants are fine. We hope to be harvesting these for CSA in early spring.

 We made some choices on what to protect and what to let go. Our tomato plants are mostly lush and healthy, but some recovered better than others from the August heat wave that stopped all flowering and fruiting for a while. The southern end of the main tomato rows, to the right in the photo above, look nice but have almost no fruit on them. The northern end is loaded with green fruit we hope can still ripen, so we focused our efforts on covering those and left the others open; they won’t be doing much more anyway. You can see various row cover fabrics and cheap sheets covering the better tomatoes in the middle distance (row cover at back is over cabbages and greens for insect protection, not frost). In this photo, too, you can clearly see frost extending across the area.

 The zucchini we decided to sacrifice. This final planting has been producing amazingly, very stable and healthy for a long period of time, but sales have been going down significantly. We pick these daily to get the most efficient harvest of high-quality baby squash, and that isn’t economically efficient if people don’t buy them. So over the last week we’ve been paying less attention to them, and let the weather have its way with them. We salvaged one last bulk harvest of all sizes, which will feed a happy pig for a few days.
 The peppers, on the other hand, we definitely wanted to save. Peppers mature very slowly, and though these have been producing well for us, they’re still loaded with green fruit that we want to give every chance to mature. So we draped row cover over these, pinning it in place on the trellis string with clothespins, both Friday and Saturday nights. This worked; despite the zucchini freezing solid in rows 30+ feet uphill, these suffered little to no damage. With at least one more week of warm sunny weather coming up, we’ll get a lot more peppers now.
We spent Sunday morning with our regular work crew, cleaning up the frost-killed plants, mostly tomatoes and zucchinis. After stripping the fruits for pig food or our kitchen, we chopped the large, viny, bushy plants into shorter chunks and trucked them up to a high ridge far from the field. We’ll compost all these remains, but don’t want them sitting around near the field spreading insects and disease. Filling the truck multiple times involved some fun stomping down of the remnant to squeeze more in, feeling like an old-time grape stomping or hay-stacking.
Many other items don’t care about frost, or were already dealt with. Leeks and parsnips actually benefit from a few freezes before harvest, and many fall items like greens, chard, and cabbages don’t care. Sweet potatoes and winter squash were mostly harvested already and are currently curing for proper storage and later distribution, though we covered some remaining winter squash to allow more to ripen.
The first real frost always creates a pulse of urgent work, but afterward it’s nice to start cleaning up and finishing beds for the winter. We’re mostly grateful for the continued dry conditions (~2″ of rain in both August and September, with no rain since 9/18) as it makes fall work much easier and cleaner. Conditions are perfect for cleaning out beds, spreading & incorporating manure, getting cover crop seeded, and more. Eventually we really need some rain for the health of pastures, fruit plantings, and more, and just so we can finally take a break indoors, but in the meantime we’re really getting work done and moving nicely toward next year.