Stuck in the February Mud: A Tomato Tale

Tomato season kicked into full gear at Terra Firma over the weekend, as you will see in your boxes today. As TFF subscribers, you are sharing the harvest of one of the only producing tomato fields in Northern California right now.
We pride ourselves on pushing the limits of how early we can plant tomatoes, generally shooting to start right around March 1st. It’s not always a winning strategy: wet weather can cause numerous problems and cold temperatures can kill the plants. In 2017, for example, the March-planted tomatoes were stressed by the weather and developed a disease that killed half our field.
But the truth is, hot weather can be disastrous for tomatoes as well. They are considered a summer crop that loves heat, and it’s true that hot weather produces the best-tasting tomatoes. But the plants and flowers prefer spring-like weather. Overly hot weather, especially when combined with strong dry winds, cause the flowers to abort without producing fruit. So we have found that our earliest planted fields often produce a very heavy crop.
This year we had two short windows of dry weather that made all the difference for the tomatoes. The first, which lasted from January 2nd until the 5th, allowed us to starting preparing the field for the tomatoes. 17 inches of rain later, in late February, we got another three days during which the soil dried out enough to consider planting.
We are able to plant in between storms thanks to a specialized planter developed by Amish farmers in Pennsylvania. Inspired by an amusement park Ferris Wheel, it makes almost no contact with the soil, which keeps it from plugging with mud. The planting beds are covered in plastic. As long as the tractor pathways in the field are dry enough, we can put the tomatoes in.
It’s also quite fast, so we don’t need days and days to get the job done. That turned out to be very important, since it was drizzling for the last hour while we planting. We were quite literally sticking the tomatoes into mud.  That night we got another inch of rain.
Generally our biggest concern after planting the early tomatoes is freezing weather which can kill the plants. So we set up irrigation pipe and monitor the temperatures, ready at any time to turn on the sprinklers which will keep frost from forming. But this year the frost never came, mostly because it hardly stopped raining until mid-April.
When it finally dried out and warmed up a bit, the plants were still quite small. But they got right down to business setting a massive crop of fruit. Even now, they are pretty short — almost half as tall as the next planting that went in almost 6 weeks later.
As I’ve said before, climate change is going to have a profound impact on farmers’ abilities to reliably produce crops in a given geographical area. Farmers are more acutely aware and sensitive to the risks posed by the weather, but our historical “farmer Wiki” of what works and what doesn’t work at certain times of year is becoming less and less reliable.
This year our earliest tomato field may be the best crop we get. That’s good for us — and you — but it’s not so great for all the other farmers that didn’t get a chance to plant.
Thanks,
Pablito

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