Take a walk through the orchards in Hollis’s town center, enjoying the firm, dry paths beneath your sneakers and the warm breeze against your face. Walk by rows of peach trees pushing out pink blossoms, and note the field hands gently raking the protective winter coating of straw off the rows of strawberries. In the distance, you may see a cloud of dust as a tractor turns the soil, preparing a field for the first of the spring plantings. Sounds like the perfect spring day on the farm doesn’t it? But, not everyone is feeling as carefree when walking the fields. A warmer than average winter, the lack of snow and rain, and an early burst of high temperatures have local farmers observing this scene with great concern.
Vegetable plants are doing well in the controlled environment of green houses, but it is the fruit crops that are most vulnerable to the weather shifts right now. March temperatures that hovered in the 70’s and 80’s encouraged fruit tree blossoms to make their appearance six weeks too early. This early budding of fruit trees and strawberry plants added four to six weeks of unwanted exposure to potential frost and freezing temperatures that could significantly damage or destroy acres of fruit crops.
Fortunately, strawberries can be protected from harmful frosts. Strawberries are low to the ground and can be watered immediately before a frost comes in. The water turns to a protective layer of ice keeping the fruit-producing flowers at an acceptable 32 degrees even while air temperatures may drop down to the low 20’s or teens.
In contrast, fruit trees are much higher off the ground and watering doesn’t offer a consistent result. Moreover, many orchards are too large and don’t have the irrigation it would take to prevent damage from a freeze like that experienced on March 25th. This is a concern because peach and apple trees buds are now in their critical stage of development unusually early. Early peaches are already in “full flower” while later peaches are in “first pink” stage. “Full flower” buds are fully open and in the greatest danger if a freeze comes through. While in this stage, a farm can lose 10 percent of its peach crop if temperatures drop to 26 degrees for a sustained time of 30 minutes. And, if temperatures fall a little further to 21 degrees for a sustained time of 30 minutes, up to 90 percent of a peach crop can be destroyed – a disaster for any farm (the critical temperatures for frost damage on fruit trees vary by stage of development of the flower and the variety of fruit; to learn more, go to:
Another concern for the local farms has been the lack of snow and rain throughout the winter. This winter’s warmer temperatures prevented the frost line from developing to the optimum twelve to eighteen inches below the soil line. Trevor Hardy of Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis suggests that the frost line was a mere 6 inches; a dangerously shallow level. A deeper frost line with an insulating layer of snow keeps fruit trees from budding too soon as warmer temperatures arrive. The lack of snow this winter and a dry spring means there is less water in the soil as the first tilling begins. Irrigation ponds are low and if rain doesn’t come soon, farms will begin watering ahead of schedule depleting water supplies that could cause water shortages later in the season.
Adrian Lavoie has been busy preparing fields for planting at Lavoie Farm in Hollis. He is keeping an eye on the low water table and is considering taking a few planting risks. “The water table is low this year. My higher elevated fields are dry, but I can go to lower laying fields that are usually very wet now and get started planting there.” The warmer, dryer weather can move some planting up by one to two weeks. A farmer might be willing to take a gamble and plant a few acres around April 18th. If he is successful that could mean a big payoff with an early harvest brought to market.
A farm with larger acreage can afford to take some risks, but the home gardener still needs to face the warmer spring with caution. Planting annuals too early can leave tender plants open to surprise frost and freezing temperatures. David Orde of Lull Farm says he is getting his vegetable sets ready for sale but cautions home gardeners to be careful about trying to advance the season. “Stick to historic trends, maybe moving planting up just a few days. Plant too early and you take the chance of losing everything to a late frost”.
Farming is a risky business and New England farmers are used to crazy weather patterns. This year will be a tough year for the local farms, and they will need your support more than ever. Local farms will have planting stock ready soon along with early greens and other locally produced foods. Stop in, say hello and show your support for all the hard work they do to bring you fresh, local food.