Roller-coaster weather impacts crops

Feb. 09, 2013 @ 11:04 AM

In the past few weeks, we have had a roller-coaster of winter weather.  Many days have been unseasonably warm, but in between there have been pockets of extreme cold. 

These wide swings in temperature and weather have been a challenge for many local farmers.  While the nighttime low temperatures in the city have been in the 20s and 30s some nights, the nighttime lows in the surrounding countryside have been lower for some folks. Since most farmers live outside of the city, they have been dealing with a slightly different set of circumstances.  

Many farmers have told me that their farms have little microclimates that are warmer or colder than other areas on their farms. These microclimates are a result of elevation, topography, surrounding forests or bodies of water or the direction that the field faces.  Farmers know their land very well and can use these microclimates to their advantage.  For example, a field that is cooler in the summer is an ideal place to grow crops that don’t really like the heat.  A warm, south-facing slope, on the other hand, is a great place to grow vegetables in the late winter and early spring.

After a recent cold snap, I spoke to local farmer Judy Lessler.  Judy is the owner of Harland’s Creek Farm in Pittsboro.  She grows organic vegetables and pasture-raised chickens.  Judy had a lovely crop of salad greens that she was just starting to harvest in early January.  Judy told me that she had planted them in a cool field on her farm.

She knew growing these tender greens in that field was a risk, but she decided to give it a try.  They had been doing well in the unseasonably warm December and January weather, but in the last week of January, temperatures dropped quite substantially and stayed low for several days. The crop was lost.  When we were talking about it, she said that crops like these can recover from one or two nights of low temperatures in the teens, but after the third night, they weren’t going to come back.

 Judy isn’t the only farmer that has had some trouble growing tender crops this winter.  After the cold snap and wintery weather at the end of January, many farmers reported that they were going to have a reduced crop of tender greens (lettuces, spinach, arugula, etc) for the next few weeks. 

 So, you may wonder, what vegetables are in season at local farmers’ markets right now?  Well, root vegetables such as carrots, beets, radishes and turnips have fared quite well this winter.  Also, more hardy greens, like kale and collards, are thriving, too.  Because these crops have been kissed with cold temperatures, they are actually sweeter than usual!  After temperatures start to rise a bit, it is likely that we’ll start seeing more tender greens at the market again.

Erin Kauffman is market manager for the Durham Farmers' Market.