Weather challenges from sudden spikes or drops in temperatures to high winds, heat and frost put us on guard for most of 2011.
It was a bizarre weather year throughout the U.S. by most accounts, with heavy snowstorms, record-sized tornados and floods, and a one-year drought that cost Texas $10 billion in crop losses.
Losses from weather-related disasters can be devastating for agriculture, especially small farmers, adding “up to an annual economic impact of as much as $485 billion in the U.S.,” according to the August 2011 issue of California Farmer.
We made it through the year with a few minor scrapes and setbacks, mostly from winds, which easily topple the container plants that haven’t been secured with stakes. Some winds have blown so hard that even staked plants have fallen.
Altogether, though, we’ve been lucky; others have not been so lucky.
December started with windstorms that, according to one report, blew gusts up to 125 miles-per-hour in Colorado, sending semi-trucks scuttling off the highway, tearing mature oak trees from their roots throughout old neighborhoods in Pasadena, Calif., throwing heavy limbs into homes, power lines and parked cars, cutting off power to hundreds of thousands, and creating misery for everyone, including farmers.
In our own field, the winds lifted an empty 55-gallon drum and tossed it into a hose bib, shearing the pvc fitting off the main line that enters the blueberry enclosure near the gate. I might have saved myself the trouble of a plumbing job had I secured the drum earlier. The best defense against the unexpected, of course, especially when it comes to weather and farming, is to be prepared.
When I arrived at the field to assess the damage, I worried most about how many of our container plants might have been similarly mowed down by the winds.
It never occurred to me that I’d have a broken main, at least not until I saw the gusher by the gate.
Next to the bridge that crosses the creek onto Farmer Jim’s place, fat limbs hung limply from towering cypress trees, clinging only by long shreds of bark and splintered wood, awaiting tractor and chainsaw. The place had literally been swept, shaken and shorn.
Around the packing house, the ground below row upon row of orange trees was littered with leaves, twigs and half-green, immature oranges. Farmer Jim’s fruit-heavy trees looked as though they had been shaken and cleaned out.
Until then, his trees contained more fruit than any time I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been coming up here. They were loaded, heavy with fruit; the trees remain full but definitely have been lightened.
The winds also knocked over 145 of our containers, 97 of which suffered broken emitters and connectors, not as many as in a previous wind storm in which I picked up more than 400 plants, many of which also had to be repaired, a tedious but important task.
It was after that storm in fact that we began to stake the plants on the perimeter of the field, hoping to stop the domino effect that seemed to occur each time the wind blew hard. It has worked well until this recent most significant windstorm to blow in the last ten years.
It’s worse when the plants are top heavy with growth and fruit. Once the wind gets hold of a plant, it whips the bag around and tugs on the line, breaking the plastic pieces that we use to run water to the plants. Fortunately, the plants were recently heavily pruned and trimmed and there’s not much for the wind to grab.
A friend suggested using rebar to stake the bags because it’s cheap and easy to work with and doesn’t rot in the ground like the wooden stakes we’ve been using. I chose the wooden stakes because they were easily available and, best of all, free.
We try to avoid expenses as much as possible and one of the things I’ve loved about working in the field is the opportunity to improvise and eliminate expensive overhead. Sometimes, though, trying to cut costs can be frustrating too, such as using less expensive garden variety tools for larger, more demanding agricultural applications.
The weed whacker you use around the house, for example, isn’t necessarily the one you want to use out in the field. For the bigger jobs, think heavy duty; it will save you a lot of grief.
One week later, just as our operation was up and running smoothly again, we were hit with a hard frost.
I had no idea that it was coming, no idea, in fact, that temperatures had dropped so severely the night before until one of the workers who lives at the farm told me he’d seen black ice on the leaves of Farmer Jim’s orange trees.
On the way to the farm that day, I noticed that the field of peppers, which had only recently been planted and staked across the creek from us, appeared burned and dead. I’d watched the field hands finish putting up thousands of stakes only a few days prior.
At first, I thought the peppers had dried up from neglect. It seemed like such a huge waste. Then, turning close upon the orange grove nearest the packing house, I noticed that nearly all of the trees’ leaves were turned up and appeared dry.
That’s when I realized harsh weather had given us another taste of the unexpected.
The farmhand said the oranges didn’t appear damaged but will need to develop more before it’s possible to really tell. After passing two fields in which mature fruit trees and tender new pepper plants had clearly suffered from the cold, I was certain that we would see similar stress and burns from frost on our own plants.
At the gate to the enclosure, however, the blueberry plants appeared fine, green and budding beautiful blossoms.
Our blueberry plants tolerate the cold pretty well, even though they’re a southern hybrid developed at a Florida university for warmer climates. They didn’t appear damaged at all. In fact, they looked vibrant and healthy and bearing an abundance of new blossoms.
Finally, we were hit with some rain, which usually isn’t a problem except for the fact that it produces a lot of weeds. As warm temperatures returned by the end of the month, the weed growth exploded, and that actually was the most difficult weather-induced challenge we faced as the year closed out.
Of course, there are no guarantees in this business of working with the elements, and I’m learning to always be ready for the unexpected, especially as weather patterns become more unpredictable.
Stacey Warde writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he tends a two-acre container farm of blueberries not far from scenic coastal Highway 1. He has received numerous awards for his writing and is a former publisher of the literary magazine, The Rogue Voice.