Rain, Rain, Go Away! Dealing with F.W.A. (Farmer Weather Anxiety)

Happy May! We are entering the season of FWA (Farmer Weather Anxiety), where moods on the farm begin a direct correspondence with the ten-day forecast. If we seem grumpy or jittery or anxious for the next six months, I can 100% guarantee you that it’s due to either raging hanger or an unfavorable weather forecast. FWA also leads to mood swings, since the forecast increasingly will veer dramatically over a period of hours. For example, Saturday night showed ten days of impending rain, which induced more than one tear, yet Sunday morning at 6am changed to four days of sunshine, which brought new rays of hope. (Fingers crossed that dry break holds still by the time you read this!)

We were extra thankful for the dry spell two weeks ago that allowed us to get seeds in the ground because most years it feels like we live the armpit of American weather, with constant rain and icky-ness that moisture and grey days breed, both in farmer attitudes and in plant diseases. This year, our FWA lifted with the weather gods’ blessing of a series of nice days to proactively plant the majority of the first few week’s crops. We weren’t alone, as you could hear our neighbors’ rumbling tractors late at night also putting in the extra hours to take the pressure off when weather turns nasty later.

Thanks to the connectivity of the internet, we have lots of company in our muddy misery as we hear from friends and growers across the country where pretty much everyone is getting hammered this season. The jet stream was stuck, setting warmer regions back most terribly during the late winter when we were still too frozen to even be in the field. In the northwest, heavy rains have some farms still unable to plant two months behind schedule. In Texas, the central plains, and parts of the Midwest, winds, rains, and tornados are trashing everything. And I frankly can’t keep up with what’s happening in the southeast—I’m going to nominate them for the worst weather in the country award because it seems like it’s either freezing and flooding there, or baking and literally burning up.

Here we are just jittery. We have a full greenhouse and an acre to plant this week, but it’s not clear we’ll get the four consecutive rain-free days we need to get the tractor in the field to prepare the soil. Yet at the same time, we have the buffer of a greenhouse to keep plants alive while they wait to get transplanted, a late frost built into our scheduling so we have lots of crops that we didn’t plan on planting for another month anyway, and the knowledge that once the weather breaks, the veggies we plant generally grow super-fast (thanks to our long northern days) and catch up. If the weather breaks, we’ll be slow to have produce at the farmers market, but should stay on track for our planned CSA start date. If it doesn’t break, we can just adjust and have more bounty further into the fall end of the season. This forecast heightens our anxiety, but we’ve been here before. We’ve had mid-May snow (it sucks, but we’ll bounce back) and we plan for end of May frost, because more often than not, it happens.

Comparing our situation to the rest of the country puts us in a weird spot. On a national scale, we frankly have a pretty terrible spot to farm, complete with constant wind, chance of frost during ten months of the year, high elevation, and a propensity for excess of water at inconvenient times of the growing season. It should be terrible, right?

Yet more and more, we have a thread of appreciation for our consistently lousy weather, because we build that possibility (okay, inevitability) into our farm planning and systems. Some farmers markets cancel if the winds are over 20 mph. I’m pretty sure we never went below 20 mph at one of our markets last year. We had so much wind one day that I caught 2 feet of air while holding down a 10 by 10 tent weighted with over 300 pounds! Some farms lose row cover at 10 mph wind. We consider 10 mph an “easy” day to row cover crops (it’s not, it’s honestly pretty hellish to spread giant gauze-like sails over plants in any wind levels, but we are used to it now). On Tuesday, Matt row-covered a bed by himself and came back saying it seemed a little windy. It wasn’t until late at night that we checked the weather station and learned that “little bit of wind” was 46 mph!

This is from last year--the little guys aren't quite this big yet!

One day in ten dry enough for field work during crunch times, we are ready for it [thanks to a new tractor that always starts and has lights that lets us work into the night]. Five inches of rain in an hour, been there [our fields cant at an angle for better drainage and we use plastic mulch on erode-able crops]. Three feet of snow in a day, check. Ice, sleet, hail, or graupel (our favorite form of precipitation), we’ve seen them all in every month but July and August.  16 foot snow drifts over the high tunnel, just a few hours of shoveling. No rain for ten weeks, yup. Microbursts snapping trees and ripping off chunks of the roof, so last year. Short of the eye of a hurricane or tornado hit (my phobia), we’ve seen pretty much all the lousy weather that we can conceive of, and seen most of it in every growing season on the farm so far.

This is the first year we’ve realized that all this chronic weather hassle, while it increases our labor and stress and reduces the economic viability of our farm, has one narrow silver lining. We have bad weather, but we have it all the time, so really bad weather often feels only marginally worse than normal and we are generally at least somewhat prepared for it. Most other places have much nicer average weather, so really bad weather when it hits them, it feels exponentially worse and hits them so much harder.

The weather is changing and getting more swingy between extremes, with more violence at either end of the spectrum. Wet spells are wetter, and dry spells dryer. That gentle southern wind that wafted along warm air to our fields twenty years ago has morphed into terrifying air-borne freight train that devastates at least ten percent of our crops each year (we hate south wind days!). The jet stream gets stuck, with lousy weather parked in place for weeks at a time, and training storms keep hitting the same towns with boatloads of rain, while their neighbors suffer in drought.

Our exposed site is at high risk for extreme weather, but this risk is something we know about in advance and build our farm systems around. We’ve been doing this because we couldn’t really afford land in easier locations, so if we want to continue as a farm we don’t have a choice but to adapt. We just didn’t realize how much we’ve internalized growing on the extreme climate edge until this season as we heard about all the struggles farms in what we think of as softer and nicer growing climates have had dealing with extremes that we consider normal.

Our takeaway is that we need to continue to adapt for this stressful new normal by trialing and building systems that are more resilient to three weeks of freezing spring gloom, and take notes and share what’s working for us with farmers in other regions that aren’t blessed with as many opportunities to test cropping techniques on the rugged climatic edge. It’s not going to be cheap in terms of infrastructure costs or time, but it also seems like the only way to keep going as a farm in these climatically erratic times.

This spring nationally shows that farmers in all regions need to become more prepared to hedge against the long spells of increasingly uncertain and extreme weather that can become parked over us. Our national food supply is built on softer areas of the country having decent enough weather to fill the grocery shelves, and as a country and an industry, we need to start proactively figuring out how we are going to keep refrigerators full when the global weather systems stop cooperating.