We try very hard to insulate our customers from the hardships and setbacks that are inherent to farming. We plan carefully, have backup plans and crops, and try to forecast and steer around problems in advance. But sometimes we don't see the iceberg until it's too close.
One feature of choosing to source your produce from a local farm is to have a lens into where your food comes from and how it all works, good and bad. Below we'd like to share some of our experiences and the challenges we've faced so far this season, we'll start with the negative and end on a positive note.
Challenges & Hardship
This has been the toughest start to a growing season we've experienced since we started. Even with careful planning and a hard working team doing their best, there are still some things beyond our control. All we can do now is absorb the lessons learned from these experiences and integrate them going forward to be more resilient.
The season started out great. Our planning was comprehensive and our scheduling and timelines allowed us to get on top of a number of early season challenges.
We had our first sweep of the garden weeding done earlier than ever before and most of our critical setup tasks done ahead of schedule. Crops that we overwintered in the garden (planted in the fall that emerge in early spring) were doing well - several full beds of spinach and green onions. And our indoor growing racks were full of strong and well-timed seedlings ready for transplant.
Trouble started the week of May 15. As mentioned in our last email, overnight temperatures were dipping below zero and we had tomato seedlings transplanted out into our greenhouse tunnels.
It was a grind to stay up until sunrise for a total of 7 nights over 12 days in order to babysit the propane heaters. They ran all night and just barely kept the greenhouses at 3-5C, but we're happy to report it was enough to resist the hard frosts and our tomatoes are alive and well.
August heat in May
A week after these subzero nights, we had a week of daily temperatures at or above 30C with a UV index in the 10-13 range (that's very high). Those plants that can tolerate -3C and frost in mid-May are not well suited to 30+ Celsius, especially not mere days later. And so the extreme heat has set us back.
We had transplanted about 800 celery seedlings a week earlier, nearly all of which succumbed to the heat. We have a smaller cohort of backup celery that we'll transplant this coming week but our crop will be a fraction of it's planned size and later than we'd hoped.
We also have around ten beds of crops that were seeded throughout May whose seedlings may have been killed by the late frosts or may have failed to germinate due to the very high temperatures. It's tough to tell. We're still irrigating the beds to see if the cooler temperatures will allow the seeds to germinate, but those crops are behind schedule.
Even well established crops like our overwintered spinach have suffered. Spinach is winter hardy and remains dormant under the snow cover, so we seed it in the fall to get a head start the following spring. Once the snow has melted and the days get longer, the plants begin to regrow and normally by the time our CSA program starts, we have an abundance. But as a cool season and cold hardy crop, spinach is sensitive to heat. High temperatures causes spinach to "bolt" and go to seed. Once spinach bolts, the leaves become tougher and bitter. At this point, much of our overwintered spinach has bolted. We've seen spinach endure a few days of early heat in previous seasons, but a full week of 30+ seemed to be too much for it.
Successes & Learnings
Okay, let's reset our perspective to one of "glass half full". All of the problems outlined above have forced us to reflect and consider how we can adapt going forward. The climate is heating, weather is becoming less predictable, and it's happening faster than expected. We need to widen our error bars, be ready to respond to a wider variety of possible circumstances, and hopefully anticipate new modes of failure prior to experiencing them and learning the hard way.
We're happy and relieved that our lettuce crops were not among those significantly impacted. Some lettuce transplants did take some damage from the heat, but overall they're performing well.
We're testing a new variety of heat resistant romaine that seems to be doing well too. The only issue with romaine in the heat is that it tends to cause the leaves to open rather than staying tightly bunching, but the plants look healthy so we'll count it as a win.
For years we've deployed large shade fabrics over our greenhouse tunnels. This is just a woven fabric that reduces the amount of sunlight that makes it into the greenhouses themselves. This markedly reduces the temperature inside the greenhouses, sometimes by as much as 10C.
Soon after our celery transplants got fried, we began making prototypes of single bed sized shade fabrics that we can deploy to protect newly transplanted crops. When we come upon periods of extreme heat and UV, we expect that providing new transplants the extra protection of shade for a few weeks will allow them to establish and acclimate.
There are some crops we always transplant such as head lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers, and others that we always direct seed into the soil such as swiss chard, carrots, and beets. The beds that failed to germinate have pushed us to reconsider these approaches. We've already seeded and transplanted swiss chard into the garden as a trial, and following the heat losses we've seeded over 600 beet plants indoors as well. Newly emerged seedlings are very sensitive, so by giving them a head start in a tightly controlled environment, we hope to add an option to our toolkit for more resilient starter crops.
Perennial plants are more resilient than annuals. Once established, they have a deeper and stronger root system for claiming water and nutrients, and in our part of the world they necessarily have the ability to tolerate a wide range of temperatures and conditions. We already have some perennial crops in the garden, mostly herbs and berries, but we've added some new ones too.
This year we planted 4 beds of asparagus crowns and they're doing well. If you're a customer a few years from now, you'll be able to enjoy them with us. Asparagus takes years to establish but can endure for decades.
We've also planted more strawberries this year after some successful experimenting in the last few years. We've planted ten haskapp bushes as well, they're a very hardy berry. Next year we'll be making an earnest effort to incorporate more perennial varieties into our garden plan, with rhubarb already on the list.
More Conservative Schedule
We've made a habit of trying to get our transplants out as early as possible so we can have the crop as early as possible. Early tomatoes, early peppers, and so on. It's great to have early crops but it's not worth the risk of losing crops entirely. Moving forward, we'll work to expand our menu of early season crops and not be in such a hurry to get our warm weather transplants into the field. We'd rather be the tortoise than the hare.
In terms of crop progress and success, this has definitely been the toughest start to a season we've experienced yet. We're optimistic that this is merely a delay in variety and abundance and that we'll be back on track soon.
If you have any questions or comments for us, send us an email to email@example.com, find us on Facebook or Instragram, or just stop by and say hello.