Climate Change, or just Weather?

We just had a cold night of 17F, considerably colder than our previous coldest this year (22F). Several people remarked how cold this November has been. Perhaps even colder than any month last winter? I decided to find out.

November 2011 had a low of 22F on 11/12, 11/18 and 11/19. The highest low was  56F on 11/21. The average low was 35.3F. December 2011 had a lowpoint of 18F on 12/12, a warmest night at 60F on 12/7, and the average low was 29.2F. January 2012 had a low point of 9F on 1/25, a “warmest” night of 39F just two days later on 1/27, and an average night low of 22.5F. February 2012 had a coldest night (10F) on 2/13, a warmest night (49F) on 2/2, and an average low of 29.3F.

Young blueberry bush in snow.Photo credit Bridget Aleshire
Young blueberry bush in snow.
Photo credit Bridget Aleshire

So how does this November compare? Our coldest night has been 17F on 11/29, our warmest night 44F on 11/19, with an average of 27.5F. So, November 2012 has had colder nights than Nov 2011 and Dec 2011, but not January 2012.

What about the daytime? Has it been chillier than usual? This November has had a max of  78F on 11/11, a coldest day on 11/27 (46F) and an average of 58.4F, not counting today. November 2011 had a 78F day too (11/14) and much warmer days, the lowest was 50F on 11/17 and 11/18. The average daytime high was 65.9F. Positively balmy! Dec 2011 had a high of 68F on 12/15 and a coldest day at 44F just two days later. The average daytime high was 55.2F. Colder than this November. January 2012 had a high point of 72F on 1/31, a coldest day of 34F on 1/21 and an average daytime temperature of 53F. Also colder than this November.

Overwintered Vates kale.Photo credit Twin Oaks Community
Overwintered Vates kale.
Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

We record our daily max and min temperatures and rainfall, enabling us to compile the weather data from the past several years into some interesting graphs. Each year around this time we write up a report for the community about how our gardening year has gone, which crops were successful, which not. We also include an appendix about the weather that year and previous years. The appendix gets longer with each added year, so we shorten the reports from the oldest years, so as to give prominence to weather most people can remember. Here I’ll include just the past four years.

The Weather Appendix

As always, the weather changes –

  • Our 2012 earthquakes numbers 61-82 were recorded between January and July 31. No more aftershocks of the Aug 23 2011 big quake have been recorded since, although I felt two in August. It’s nice to have that piece of history behind us after a year of nervousness. Our last frost was on 4/24, a very patchy light frost. The previous frosts were 4/11-4/14. This fall we had a patchy frost on 10/13, but no serious one till 11/1. January was cold and dryish with freezing rain on 1/20. February was mild and wet, with one 5″ snowfall. March and April were warm. May was twice as wet as average (7.4″), and warm. We had four days of 90F or more from 5/25. June heated up, with temperatures of 99F on 6/20, and 105F on 6/29. Seven days of 92F or more. July was brutally hot, with 17 or 18 days at 95F or hotter, nine of them 100F or more. The hottest was 107F. Slightly more rain than normal. And of course, the impressive/oppressive humidity. August had “only” six days above 95F, September was milder and rainier, with 5.5″, and no major hurricanes for us. October was warm, with daytime temperatures of 70-86F until the last week (the Hurricane Sandy week). We were extremely lucky with that, only getting about 3″ of rain. In my memory, there were long drought periods when the need to irrigate was relentless, but the data don’t support this memory. Funny, that. We actually had 2-7.4″ every month and the longest dry spell was the first two weeks of April.
  • 2011 was often too rainy. January 1st had a high of 62°F, then the month cooled, with several nights of 10°F, one at 4°F, and two snowfalls. February included 6 days with highs over 68°F, (80°F on 2/18), a dusting of snow, a few nights in the teens and a normal amount of rain (1.9”). March was wet with 6.7” rain (twice normal), 7 days at 70°F or more, 6 nights below 25°F. April had 7 very hot days (90°F or more), average rain, and a patchy last frost on 4/14. May was very wet (6.6”), and warm, ending with a string of days above 90°F. June was also wet (6.2”, including one deluge of 4.1”), hot at each end , two days at 100°F, and milder in the middle. July had a brutal two week drought at the end, and a string of 14 days (including 8/1-8/2) with temperatures above 95°F. The highest was 104°F. August continued with high temperatures, but only 7 days over 95°F. We got too much rain (7.7”), including Hurricane Irene, which gave us 2.8” but could have been so much worse. And there was the 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered a few miles from us on 8/23, and the 59 aftershocks registering 1.8 or higher between then and the last for the year on December 24 (mag 2.4) . November gave us a 17 day gap in aftershocks, up until the 5 in 48 hours 11/19-20. September brought another huge 7.7” rain, including Tropical Storm Lee. Temperatures were nice, although it was often hard to work with the soil getting saturated so often. October was pleasant, if still wet (5.5”), delaying harvest of our potatoes and rotting our winter squash. The first frosts came decisively at 25°F on 10/30 and 10/31. November had 3.9″ of rain, December 5.4″.
  • The winter of 2009-2010 was remarkable for heavy snowfalls. The lowest temperature of the winter was –5°F (1/30). There was a series of 22 Nor’easter storms December to March. The last frost was 5/9, long after the first days above 95°F (4/6 &4/7). 2010 had a brutally hot summer. The days above 95°F were 13 in June, 19 in July, 14 in August, 10 in September. Days above 100°F were 2, 11, 2, 2 for those months. The hottest day was 107°F on 7/24. No major hurricanes affected us, although Nicole gave us 2.5” rain 9/29. Statistically speaking, the rain was a normal amount, but when temperatures are so hot, much more evaporates. On 10/2 there was a magnitude 3.0 earthquake with an epicenter between Mechanicsville and Fredericksburg, and another at Ashland, magnitude 2.4 on 10/30. First frost was 10/23. November was mild, but the cold weather kicked in 12/4/10.
  • 2009 started mild then got extremely cold in mid-January, with temperatures below  –5°F.  We had the first significant snowfall in a few years, and the pond froze over for the first time in at least 3 years. Last frost 4/18. We had average precipitation overall, but it was flood or drought, which isn’t good for the garden. We lost the new Ag Well pump and tank in the Tobacco Barn fire, and had difficulties with irrigation. The hottest day was 98°F.  We had a heat wave in early June, but only eight days of 95°F or higher all year. In early November it rained for about four days straight.  First frost was 10/18.

Home from CFSA, Superstorm Sandy

Beauregard sweet potato
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Superstorm Sandy didn’t do us much damage, luckily. It’s been raining for 40 hours, but we’ve only got 2.8 inches so far and it looks like it’s going to clear up later today. Despite my worries about the broken hoophouse windows blowing in and us losing our newly re-plasticked hoophouse, it didn’t happen. We didn’t have any really high winds, and we didn’t even lose power, but of course we did all the prep work.

Georgia Jet
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Yesterday we re-stacked our sweet potatoes which had finished curing (the skins don’t rub off any more). We moved them into a wire rodent-proof cage, and close-stacked them, taking away all the sticks that spaced the boxes during curing. I haven’t got numbers for the total yield yet, but it comes to 96 boxes. The Georgia Jet produced 42 boxes and the Beauregard only 32 from the same length row. Our two heirloom varieties produced three boxes each. We don’t expect many of them, but we are keeping the varieties alive, because genetic diversity is important and who knows what secret virtues these varieties have?

We also bravely spent time in the rain, digging drainage ditches to reduce the impact of the hurricane. They seem to have worked quite well. And we draped the soggy rowcovers over the frost tender crops, in anticipation of freezing conditions.

While I was away at the CFSA Conference, the crew harvested the white potatoes. We got a good yield (also no numbers yet), but we got a disappointingly large number of greened potatoes. (Green from being exposed to the light.) I think the reason is that our new experimental tractor-mounted furrow-making disks don’t make furrows as deep as we need. The walk-behind BCS furrower on the rototiller made adequate furrows, but not as good as the old Troybilt furrower. This flags a need to research better gear before March.

I had a great time at the CFSA Conference. I think there were about 700 people there. About 70 came to my workshop Growing Great Garlic, on Saturday afternoon. They were very appreciative, and I managed OK without my notes! It’s not as bad as it sounds – I had a slideshow and had practiced quite a few times, and knew it better than I would have guessed. Somehow I couldn’t get my notes on the laptop screen without them also appearing on the big screen along with lots of clutter. This flags a need to find out before my three workshops at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, January 23-26. Busy, busy.

The conference was very well organized and the food was spectacular – mostly local and sustainably grown. I had the chance to attend several workshops by other people. Tony Keinath, the vegetable pathologist at Clemson University, talked on Sustainable and Organic Approaches to Managing Cucurbit and Tomato Diseases – a very well-prepared and information-packed session. I feel in a better place to tackle next year’s plagues now. I was struck by the fact that he had seen NO benefits of using Oxidate, the hydrogen peroxide disease control product.

A workshop I found particularly valuable was Laura Lengnick‘s presentation “Is Your Farm Climate Ready?”  She is doing valuable work to help farmers get ready for climate variability. She is one of the main authors of a USDA ARS report Climate Change and Agriculture: Effect and Adaptation. Its publication date is November 14 2012. She also spoke at the August 2012 symposium of the Ecological Society of America, Climate change impacts on agricultural systems:

She suggests viewing climate change as yet another production risk to assess and prepare for. The vulnerability of your farm has two components: exposure and adaptive capacity. As far as vulnerability, the most immediate key exposure is water issues (too much and too little). Rising air temperatures, including night temperatures, more extreme temperatures provide threats and some opportunities. Increasing CO2 levels will provide some positive effects such as faster crop growth. As far as adaptive capacity, the main feature of that aspect is our personal capacity to respond and plan. Laura Lengnick says “Greater attention to climate as critical for decision-making is expected by future generations of producers.” We need to start with ourselves.

Baby ginger, ready to be eaten, pickled, candied, frozen.
Photo East Branch Ginger

Next I attended a workshop by Susan Anderson of East Branch Ginger, and learned so much about how to do the best by this crop, that I am looking forward to an even bigger harvest next year. This year we harvested 165 pounds, and saved 65 pounds as seed stock, so we can plant a bigger patch in next year’s hoophouse.

Harvested baby ginger, about 6 months old
Photo East Branch Ginger

Meanwhile I’ve finished my next article for Growing for Market. My working title is Knowing When to Take Action. It’s the third part of my series on being a resilient farmer. This article includes scouting and monitoring for pests and diseases; using pest and disease forecast services; and being prepared for the effects of extreme high and low temperatures. When is it time to cut your losses? A big part of the article is a table of soil temperatures to help when deciding planting and harvesting dates.

Efficient Harvesting Techniques in Growing for Market magazine

The cover of the August issue of Growing for Market

The August issue of Growing for Market magazine is out! In it on page 9, you’ll find my article on how to harvest efficiently, mostly without machinery. Trade secrets are revealed – like when is a cabbage fully mature, and just what is “full slip” for a melon. And which crops should you harvest later in the shift, when the dew has dried from the leaves.

I cover organization,  planning and management, finding good crop sequences (don’t leave the corn languishing in the heat while you get the beans!), tools, and various harvesting methods such as cutting whole heads, picking individual leaves, and “buzz-cutting” so the plant can regrow. And that’s just the leafy greens. There’s also the roots, including onions, and fruits (botanically speaking) such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and podded crops like beans and peas. Food safety, field washing and short-term storage until the happy diners get their hands on the food – all this is covered too.

When you grow 60 different crops, how do you make time to harvest them all? Well, of course, not everything is ready to harvest at once, even in August. Some crops we pick every day, some every other day, some twice a week. Here’s a trick we use: For the every-other-day crops we have developed an ingenious phonetic system. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday we harvest crops beginning with a k/c/g sound; on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we harvest b and p crops. This works almost perfectly, with just a few crops we force into place: eggPlant not eGGplant! sPinach, senPosai! This system works well for us, and adds some amusement. It also ensures we harvest some cooking greens each day: kale, collards, cabbage some days, broccoli, pak choy, spinach on the other days. Beans take over from peas as the spring heats up. Corn gets picked on the days we don’t pick labor-intensive beans.

Our main tools are Garden Way type carts, 5 gallon buckets and knives. Although special harvest knives can be bought, and we have some of those, we get most of our knives at yard sales and thrift stores. Great value for the money! Serrated bread knives can be excellent tools for cutting cabbage and kohlrabi, anything with a thick stem.

My next few articles will be about dealing with nature’s surprises, being ready for anything, predicting what’s about to happen next, and deciding when to change plans and grow something different. Climate change is here, and we growers will need to adapt.