New England is infamous for sporadic weather. Unlike the heavy snowfall of 2011, the winter of 2012 has been relatively dry. We may find warm temperatures and dry roads pleasant, but for area farmers, an unpredictable season can be a serious liability. Pioneer Valley farmers spent the first few months of this year re-adjusting their businesses.
Leslie Cox, is the manager of the Farm Center at Hampshire College. Cox cares for the farm’s diverse livestock, the hay fields, and the maple sugar crop. He discussed with us the negative impact of recent weather patterns on the sugaring process. Cox expressed concern over the economic implications of diminished crops this past winter.
He told us he earns between $1,500 and $2,000 annually from the maple sugar crop. This year he chose to skip the harvest completely. His decision was based on the unpredictability of the late winter temperatures and the worn-out condition of the trees.
“Sometimes you just have to let things rest,” Cox told us. “When I walked through the sugar woods I felt really guilty for letting it get this bad…so I chose to sit the season out.” He told us that the Cornell University Agriculture Department, who specialize in sugar maple harvests, sent out a bulletin suggesting farmers tap their trees earlier than usual. The people that followed this instruction and tapped early had a near-normal season.
Jarrett Man, co-owner of The Kitchen Garden Farm, spends the winter growing leafy greens like kale, lettuce and spinach. Most winter vegetable farmers grow in un-heated greenhouses. Man told us his season hasn’t hit hard by the weather. He told us that despite warm temperatures, the ground has been colder than usual this year. Without the insulating layer of snow, soil has stayed frozen throughout the past few months.
Man has been taking precautions to ensure a healthy crop season in the spring and summer. He does so by tracking ‘growing degree days’, which essentially means he’s been monitoring temperature fluctuations closely. He does so to make sure his plants don’t jump the gun and start growing before it’s time. Plants are physiologically programmed to move faster when it’s warm out, but Man worries if they follow their instincts they’ll die in an unexpected freeze.
Cox told us that unlike his sugar crop, this weather has been great for his animals. They’ve been able to stay outside in the pasture for much of the season, instead of in a heated barn. If they were inside, he would have to pay to heat and feed them corn. In the field they can graze on grass and keep warm in the sun’s light, saving Cox tremendous energy costs.
Nancy Hansen manages the vegetable growth for the Hampshire College Farm Community Supported Agriculture Program, or CSA. She also grows her winter crops in greenhouses, but she says the unpredictability has caused some financial losses this season. Their inability to accurately predict temperatures has thrown off their harvests. Hansen’s vegetables are coming in too fast or too slow, but generally not on time.
Post and Video by Melissa Gately, Tyler Manoukian, and Remy Schwartz