This is the time of year when we at Terra Firma have a few moments to sit back and think about things we might want to do differently in the coming year. It is much, much easier, however, to conduct this sort of “farm self-analysis” if it’s raining.
A farm is a slow-moving vessel, like an oil tanker. Changing direction almost has to happen before you have enough information to chart a new course. For example, at Terra Firma we actually have to purchase tomato seeds in December and get them to the nursery by New Year’s Day in order to have plants ready in March. So most years, deciding to make changes in our tomato field for the coming year has to happen while we are still harvesting tomatoes. By the time the season is over, we have mostly made our plans for the next one.
We don’t make drastic decisions easily, such as giving up on a crop entirely.
But in a world where the climate is quickly changing over one decade or even less, it is starting to feel like two or three years of data are becoming enough to point to a trend. Some farmers are getting very adventurous about the new opportunities created by a warming planet: a number of growers on the Central Coast are now planting coffee plants under their avocado trees and a nursery has sprung up to grow the trees (bushes, actually).
For many years, we have held to a set of “last planting dates” in the fall for most of the crops we grow in the winter here. The dates are different for different crops, but in our experience, planting any later in the winter yields nothing but stunted plants that don’t ever produce a crop. Plants grow very slowly when it’s cold, cloudy and wet. However, with 2015 giving us the second “Juneary” in a row — Januarys with sunshine, record high temperatures and little rain — we are starting to question those assumptions.
Seven of the last ten Januarys have been (relatively) warm and dry. Contrast that with historical data that shows January to be the wettest month of the year on average. On a human-scale timeline, that’s a pretty clear trend.
Almost all of our crops are running as much as six weeks ahead of schedule this season. It’s not a problem for a crop like kale, which continues to produce new leaves all winter. But for plants like broccoli, cabbage and carrots it means we may run out too soon. Meanwhile, spinach that we planted after Thanksgiving is almost ready to harvest. Just a few years ago, spinach planted on that date was not ready to pick until March.
But warm and dry weather is only half the story. Severe, damaging freezes are also hitting Northern California far more frequently than they used to — three out of five years by our reckoning.
Will the winters of 2014 and 2015 be harbingers of the future or anomalies? This is what we are talking about right now at the farm — or what we would be talking about, if we weren’t so busy thanks to the warm and dry weather.