The Winter That Never Came

Have you noticed that the days are getting longer? I caught myself whistling while I worked in the mid-day warmth yesterday, installing new nesting boxes for the chickens in our greenhouse, and pruning our old, overgrown blueberry bushes. The smell of the never-frozen soil was clearly giving me spring fever.

As much as this weather has allowed more work to get done on the farm, as gleeful as I am to have mostly avoided numb fingers, nose, and toes while doing daily animal chores, this weather has me pretty nervous about the coming season. Farmers in New England are lucky to have the cold winters we do. This may seem odd, and when we decided to farm people asked why we would think to do it in Connecticut instead of the southern or western states with year-round growing seasons. Well first, I think I’d lose my marbles without the break of the off-season!   Second, we are CT natives – our families live here and it feels like where we belong. Having farmed for a few years now, we have learned the value of a hard winter. Previously I had not had a reason to consider annual pest and disease cycles, but that changed once I had a large stake in those cycles cycling properly.

The hard and long freezes of a typical New England winter act as a cleansing agent for the soil, killing the eggs of pest species, and the spores and bacterium that cause plant diseases. In a lot of cases these pests & diseases are literally killed off as far south as it gets cold enough, and then, with rising spring & summer temperatures, they slowly creep back northward into our fields. In this way we Northerners get a huge and healthy head start on growing. When the cleansing cold of winter doesn’t come, as it seems it won’t this year, the vegetables are at greater and longer-term risk from these plagues.

As ecological, no-spray growers, we are particularly susceptible to losses like we experienced last year with the Great Cut-Worm Infestation of 2015. Choosing not to spray pesticides means that we resort to some Basic Training-esque techniques like crawling around at night with headlamps to pull nocturnal caterpillars off of leaves. With the first week of February forecasted to be in the 50’s, we’re already anticipating that we’ll need our packs to be fully stocked with double-A batteries and kneepads in advance of spring planting. We also over-plant certain crops in anticipation of losses, acknowledging our risky behavior in letting nature take its course in our fields.

It is worth pointing out that more and more Farming Conferences are offering workshops with titles like “New Times, New Tools: Managing Climate Risk on Your Farm”. Yipes. I suppose it’s far better to acknowledge and plan for change and obstacles than to be surprised by them.

On a positive note, the warm winter weather will also mean getting started earlier. We’re debating pushing our seeding schedule up a few weeks to take advantage of the weather and get veggies into the hands of the folks that have been missing them even sooner. It may end up that we’ll have that year-round growing season after all! For now, I think I’ll have another cup of coffee on the couch with my cats and hope for snow.