“Farmers are probably the best weather gauges we have,” says Deborah Meyer DeWan, executive director of the Rondout Valley Growers’ Association. “It’s in their blood.” On a weekend in early spring when the mercury plunged from the balmy high 70s on Friday to the low 20s with high winds and snow by Sunday, it seemed like a good time to ask local farmers how the weirdly warm and nearly snowless winter just past is likely to affect their harvests this year.
According to the scrupulous weather records kept by the Mohonk Preserve, the temperature in December 2015 was 13.3 degrees Fahrenheit higher than average; in January 2016, 3.3 degrees higher; and in February, 5.8 degrees higher. Snowfall was 10.07 inches lower than normal in December, 14.3 inches lower in January and 10.53 inches lower in February. To call it a mild winter is putting it…mildly.
“A warm and snowless winter was nice to live through,” admits Chris Kelder, owner of Kelder’s Farm in Kerhonkson, where he raises a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers. “I don’t think the lack of snow will have an impact on the crop-growing season.” He points out that, while there was almost no snow this past winter, the weather wasn’t worryingly dry. “It just came as rain this year instead of snow. This area is not quite like the West that relies on snowpack for the cropping year.”
Kelder noted that the lack of snow cover means that he is “able to work the soil a little earlier than some years.” But that doesn’t mean that he’s rushing to plant earlier than normal; he got his peas into the ground at the traditional time, around St. Patrick’s Day, but is otherwise holding off. “Earlier can be fine if everything goes well, but there’s a little higher risk. Plants can take less cold the further advanced they get. A bud loses its cold-hardiness as it gets ready to blossom. The forecast of 18 degrees next week in the morning is concerning.”
That worry about a late frost damaging blooms, especially on fruit trees, comes back every spring, regardless of what the winter was like. But when the soil warms up too early, “Perennial crops are set up for failure” as well in the event of a late cold snap, Kelder says.
But mostly, weather patterns during the growing season itself determine how good a yield a farm can produce, according to Kelder, and too much precipitation can be as problematic as too little: “The issue is timely rainfall throughout the year…. As my grandfather used to say, ‘A dry year’ll scare you to death, but a wet year’ll put you in the poorhouse.”
Ray Bradley of Bradley Farm in New Paltz raises a variety of vegetables, salad greens, herbs and flowers, along with eggs and pork, mostly for the New York City greenmarket trade. He agrees that a constant water supply throughout the growing season is critical: “If the groundwater is low, it’s going to be tough to irrigate,” he says. “I use a pond. It’s fine right now.”
And Bradley is also in no big rush to put seeds in the ground just because it isn’t frozen. “I’ve been planting some peas; also some onions and fava beans. They’re not affected by the snow. Only the peas are up.” He’s contemplating planting carrots, beets and lettuce next.
As for perennial crops, “Everything’s early this year,” says Bradley. “Garlic and shallots — they’re doing good, they’re up. You plant those in September or October.”
With snow in the forecast, Bradley isn’t prepared to make any predictions about his yields for 2016. “It’s always something. You have to adjust to change all the time,” he says. “You’ve just got to go with the flow.”
Bruce Davenport, owner of Davenport Farms, agrees that trying to outguess the weather based on recent patterns is “all a crapshoot,” and that the most important variable is “how much water’s going to be available.”
“In farming, it’s all short-term stuff. The ground warms up, the ground cools down,” he observes. “Four or five well-placed rainstorms might be a drought elsewhere, but could be good for us, or the other way around. There’s not necessarily any rhyme or reason to it.”
The Davenport spread in Stone Ridge is famed mainly for its 50+ acres of sweet corn, and he reports that “We’ve plowed some already.” But neither is Davenport about to put frost-vulnerable corn seed into those furrows anytime soon. “We have warm weather now, but there’s just as apt to be a bad cold spell in the middle of May. You’re better off doing what you know than taking a chance on a late cold spell and having to replant. You could get wiped out.”
A lack of snow cover can mean that extra mulching is needed to protect perennial plants during wintertime. Davenport Farms grows strawberries, but “We cover them anyway,” he notes. “Asparagus is our other perennial crop, but that probably won’t be any earlier than usual.”
Ominously, Davenport points out one major down side to farming in a place where the ground doesn’t freeze deeply during the winter: Soil-borne pests tend to survive and multiply at greater rates than normal. “A lot of insects are going to be overwintering — that’s for sure,” he predicts.
One of the pleasures of springtime is looking forward to strawberry-picking in June, but “The yield is likely to be down this year,” warns Rod Dressel Sr. of Dressel Farms, on the border of New Paltz and Gardiner. “I prefer snow cover for strawberries. It keeps the ground from freezing and thawing and tearing up the roots. I get my best yields when there’s snow cover all winter.”
Potential early blooming is a concern for all fruits, according to Dressel: “Strawberry blossoms cannot stand many hours of frost. I hope they won’t be in bloom in April.”
The timing of late frosts is critical as well for Dressel Farms’ signature crop, apples. “The buds have matured earlier than usual because of the mild winter,” Dressel reports. “There’s a quarter-inch of green tissue showing already. Inside that are the flowerbuds forming…. I’m very concerned about the cold. If it just dips for a few hours — say, from three or four in the morning until sunrise — it’s not as serious as if it stays freezing until 10 a.m.”
For fruit trees, an early thaw can compound the problem. “The peach crop around here has been severely damaged already,” due to temperature fluctuations about six weeks ago, according to Dressel. “We have live buds now, but who knows?”
There’s nothing much that can be done to influence the weather, short-term, but this veteran agrees with the other local farmers interviewed for this story that an apparently mild start to the year is no reason to deviate from proven practices. “I’m definitely not going to apply any fertilizer to bearing apple trees until late May,” Dressel says. “We always have frosty nights in May.”
The mild winter did provide a couple of advantages to for apple-growers, he admits. Since winter dormancy is pruning time for fruit trees, the lack of snow cover made it quicker and easier than usual to get that work done. “We were able to remove brush every week,” he notes, adding, “but I would rather have a late spring.”
Also, the fact that the soil didn’t freeze very deeply means that it can be plowed earlier without as much risk of excess compaction. “The ground is quite dry,” Dressel observes. “We’re working the ground now to plant new apple trees. We’ll be ready to plant Monday or Tuesday, if the snow isn’t too deep. The market demand for new varieties is very important for farmers to stay competitive in today’s world.” With Dressel Farms now supplying apples for making hard cider under the Kettleborough Cider House label, Rod’s grandson Tim Dressel already has planted some 20 heirloom apple varieties specifically for cidering purposes, with more to come.
All in all, the consensus seems to be that family farmers will continue applying the wisdom about nature and the seasons that they have accumulated over many decades, rather than make any radical changes based on an unusual winter. Whether their definition of what constitutes a “normal” winter will have to change along with the global climate is a question yet to be answered. And keeping a close eye on tender crops and shoots in springtime will remain a critical activity for the foreseeable future.
“Like every spring, I’m optimistic that it’ll be a good year,” says Chris Kelder. “If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be a farmer.”