November 18-24, 2019
With temps in the teens and measurable snow that hung around for days along the path behind the tool shed last week, it’s safe to say the wrath of winter is upon us. That’s not to say we don’t have our winter harvest of greens protected from the fury under freeze blankets and in high tunnels, but fall abruptly came to an end for the rest of Elmwood Stock Farm. Pastures were plunged into dormancy; the leaves are all gone. A few crops seem to have come through relatively unscathed, the forecast is favorable at this point.
We know what should be done ahead of the first arctic blast announcing winter’s arrival; it’s usually not the first week of November though. I’m pretty sure we just experienced the shortest interval between 96 degrees Fahrenheit and first frost, like only ten days instead of the normal six or eight weeks of gradual cooling. And then, the shortest interval between first frost and 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Temps in the teens are supposed to be a couple of months after first frost, not a couple of weeks. Geez.
Back in the early October newsletters we referenced “confused plants” from the heat/drought to frosty/wet event. Well, those same kales, arugulas, and lettuces are wondering why they are being tested so un-necessarily again. Those same little plants have persevered through an 80 degree differential and that’s definitely not the norm. We have to adapt and take these things in stride, even though pulling row covers over tens of thousands of plants was not on the schedule during a CSA distribution week.
We pulled out our critical temperature charts and started following six or eight weather apps we each have on our phones. We have learned to get our heads together and determine our Elmwood Stock Farm weather predictor model, an art form at its finest, gambling at its worst. Each family of plants has varying ability to tolerate freezing temperatures. The same compounds that make the curly kale so tastily awesome this time of year are the salts and sugars that lower the freezing point of the liquid in their cells, which keeps them from freezing. (Ice crystals at the cellular level are like chards of glass rupturing microscopic cell walls and membranes.) Water freezes at 32 degrees F, lettuces at 22, kale 14, carrots 10 degrees, tomatoes at 38, you get the idea.
So, Jeremy made the run to Casey County for more covers, where the lone grower -supply business resides back up in the hills. These are light weight spun fabric sheets that come 20, 30, or 40 feet wide x 1000 feet long on a big heavy roll. This particular business offers the covers in two thicknesses. The “19” is good for 2-3 degrees of protection, and also serves as insect barrier for summer crops like summer squash, and the “30” gives more like 5-7 degrees of protection. We purchased more of both since the Brussel sprouts are normally harvested before such extreme temps hit us, and the abundance of kale needed protection, and the beets and carrots needed to size up in November like normal, and the baby plants in the high tunnels still needed a cover to withstand temperatures in the teens.
David and Geraldo started a week or so before the big chill covering next summer’s strawberries; the lettuce and arugula beds got another layer; the baby plants in the high tunnels needed a layer; all before tackling the field crops. We needed to harvest as much from the field crops as was ready before covering them, in case temperatures dropped more than predicted, which would wipe out most everything. We brought in cabbages and celery that otherwise could have stayed out until way past Thanksgiving.
Placing a thousand feet of this thin material over rows of plants takes preparation and planning. Some crops must have wire hoops placed every few feet to keep the cover from resting on the plants. Anywhere they touch will freeze, which makes those leaves un-sellable. On other crops like kale, Brussel sprouts, beets and carrots, the covers “float” over the field. This is a bit of a misnomer since the weight of frost and rain and snow mashes them onto the foliage, but still holds the relative warmth of the soil for the plants’ benefit.
Then there’s the weights needed every few feet along on the edges to keep the wind from getting under the blanket and lifting it off the crop. We keep thousands of little home-made sandbags and bricks from the old smokehouse on hand just for such an occasion. Let’s see, a brick every 4 feet on both sides plus extra on the ends and we are talking thousands of bricks and bags getting handled in short order. Because of access to the edge of the row is limited, hundreds of these get tossed over the 20 foot span as our vehicle holding them moves along the length of the cover.
How the covers are unrolled and unfurled is a tactical challenge, especially in the wind, which is almost certain given the conditions as to why you are covering crops in the first place. Basically, two people stick shovel handles into each end of the roll, walk along the upwind side of the row, while others unfold and secure the blanket before the wind sends it sailing across the field, rolling it up as it goes. We got it done with little aggravation this time around. The teamwork it takes to accomplish this feat is rewarding in its own right. Each one of the six of us made good recommendations and shared in other’s plans to get it done efficiently, just as dark was setting in. This is one task a beloved friend and CSA pioneer says should never be undertaken by people married to each other.
Usually the weather allows us to harvest field crops up close to Christmas without resorting to all this work, but this year we are reminded that the extra work is just part of farming I guess. We feel very fortunate to have so many of you counting on us to come through for you with the best food on the planet. It’s a commitment we take very seriously, and I am glad to say all the effort seemed to be worth it. With a little grit and some fancy fabric, we all get more fresh veggies for several weeks to come. The pastures may be dormant, but many of the veggies are not. Knowing how much faith you have in us, is the very thing that motivates us when dealing with Mother Nature and Old Man Winter at the same time. –Mac Stone
In Your Share
- Brussels Sprouts
- Cabbage, Savoy
- Kale, Green
- Radish, Mixed
- Salad Mix
- Squash, Butternut
- Squash, Delicata
- Squash, Honeynut
- Squash, Spaghetti
- Sweet Potatoes
Check out our Pinterest board for this week’s recipes!