December is usually our coldest and often the wettest month of the year here at TFF, with alternating rain and freezing morning temperatures. But so far this year, it has continued November’s trend of sunny, dry and warm: it even hit 74 briefly on Monday, which set a record for that date. This would seem bizarre no matter what, but it stands particularly in contrast to last December which featured weeks where the high temperature did not break 50 degrees. Relative to last year, we’re in the midst of a heatwave.
Objectively, the “nice” weather is ideal for farming. In fact, it is very similar to the winter climate in the California deserts where much of the nation’s fresh produce is grown during this time of year. Instead of trudging through the mud in rain gear and rubber boots, racing to harvest crops between storms, we are out working in T-shirts and tennis shoes. The only people on the farm who might be complaining about the weather this year are the irrigators, who normally get to take a seasonal break from watering the crops to do other tasks. We stopped irrigating before Thanksgiving but since then have had to start up the pumps again.
The problem with having warm — seasonally hot — weather in the winter is that the crops grow too fast. Vegetables like Broccoli or Lettuce mature more quickly than they would if it were colder, and produce more than we need or can accommodate in a shorter period. Meanwhile, we have several other crops — such as Cabbage — that we normally “store in the field” during the winter. They reach a certain size and then grow very little through December and January when the days are short. This year we are having to harvest and store them in our coolers instead, before they get too big. No one — except a sauerkraut factory — wants 10 lb. cabbages.
If we burn through a winter’s worth of vegetables in 6 or 8 weeks, that leaves us short of items to harvest for your CSA boxes in late winter. There is no way to make up for this gap. For items like broccoli and cabbage, we have to order the plants months in advance, and we don’t normally order any plants for delivery in December because it’s usually too wet to plant them. And even if we did, there is no guarantee they would produce anything at all: just because it is warm this month does not mean that January or February would not turn cold and keep them from maturing properly. Having said that, I’m not expecting much cold weather this year.
While we have certainly encountered these problems before, I don’t think we’ve ever had two consecutive years that were so dramatically different. Last year, the persistent cold and wet weather delayed the maturity of our crops by a month or longer compared to “normal”. This year, we are harvesting crops a month early — a two month difference from last year.
As far as rain goes, it’s too early to tell how things will shake out, but you won’t hear me complaining any time soon if it rains less this year than last. We got just enough rain in this November that we didn’t need to irrigate much. And while we started watering some crops this week, it is preferable to the nonstop rains we had last December. Our groundwater and reservoir supplies are in good shape, and I would be happy to see slightly below average rainfall all winter.
Of course, that is not the same as saying I expect it to happen.