Unless you live within a mile or two of the Pacific Ocean, you likely experienced — or are still experiencing — some of the hottest September temperatures your location has ever had this week. I hope everyone is figuring out some way to stay cool, especially folks who live in places where they rarely need air conditioning.
As I mentioned last week, we were originally anticipating a “convenient” record-breaking heat that would last just two days, Sunday and Labor Day, allowing us to avoid working in the worst of it. But it became clear over the weekend that this dangerous heatwave was going to spend most of the workweek with us. We came up with a plan to distribute headlamps to everyone and start work at 5 a.m.
Many businesses in our economy operate on a 24/7/395 schedule. We have never moved to that model at Terra Firma for a dozen reasons. But it appears more and more likely that we will be shifting our summer work schedule into the pre-dawn hours in order to keep our employees safe and our produce as fresh as possible. This week’s heatwave offered an impromptu test of the idea, and it appears to have succeeded. Today — the hottest day ever recorded in Sacramento and certainly the hottest day we’ve ever seen on the farm — our crew finished work at 11 a.m., just after it hit 100 degrees. By 2 p.m. it was 116.
This is the third year in a row that Northern California has had a record-setting heatwave in early September, but it’s been getting hotter in the fall at least since 2017. At Terra Firma, we used to start planting leafy greens in early August and harvesting them after Labor Day, but that strategy was clearly not tenable and we stopped after 2020. This year, we’ll start planting next week (assuming the heat has ended) — more than a month later than we used to.
Instead of September greens, we’re working on ways to extend our summer season a bit. In theory, September and even October are now warm enough here that we should be able to harvest nice tomatoes well into fall. The problem is that excessive heat during July and August causes tomato blossoms to abort before setting fruit. It also encourages the spread of viruses that kill the plants and make the fruit unmarketable. So we’re testing out varieties that are more heat-tolerant and virus-resistant, and have planted 4 new ones including the San Marzano roma tomatoes in your boxes today. We have an entire planting of those new tomatoes that we have not even started harvesting yet; with luck you’ll see them in your boxes into October.
Green Beans have traditionally been an important crop for us in September and October, but late-season heatwaves during fruit-set and right before harvest have been problematic. We’ve been trying new “heat resistant” bean varieties for two years, and have finally found a very promising one. It got through two 110+ degree days this week without becoming ugly and tough as most varieties would have. Those beans are in your boxes this week.
Terra Firma is not the only farm facing challenges from this week’s heatwave. It is going to create some serious shortages of vegetables in the coming weeks, especially since it reached areas like the Salinas Valley where it rarely gets this hot. You’ll likely see things like romaine lettuce and strawberries — two of the most temperature sensitive crops — disappear from the shelves of supermarkets for a while. Broccoli and cauliflower will probably also be damaged.
And the effects won’t just be in the short-term. Avocado growers are already reporting that the heat has damaged their trees, which will reduce next year’s crop. Walnut trees in our orchard and orchards around us have foliar damage as well, and many of the nuts on the trees are visibly burned. And this is the second week in a row that it’s been too hot for us to plant many of our fall and winter crops. That means that certain items will “gap” during our winter harvest season. A two-week gap in planting might not seem like a big deal, but that will translate into 4-6 weeks during the winter without a particular item in your boxes. That’s because once we pass the Fall Equinox, the days start getting shorter very quickly and plants grow much more slowly. September is a critical time for us, and by the time the heat subsides, it will be almost half over.
Our climate is changing faster than anyone predicted, and the fitful measures humanity is taking to address the root cause will have a long lag time in making a difference. Adaptation is critical, and will involve millions of small changes by individuals, governments, and businesses like ours.
Thanks for your support and stay cool,