After the “nicest July ever” that I mentioned a few weeks back, Summer of 2019 seems to have had second thoughts. Like a child just realizing that it’s time to go back to school, it’s making a dramatic last stand against the coming Autumn. This month has been far hotter than its predecessor, not setting any records thankfully but still much hotter than we would like.
On our farm, there is one big difference between July and August. In July, we are focused almost 100% on harvest. It is always our busiest month of the year in that regard, and we do very little planting: it’s too late to plant “summer” crops but still too early — and usually too hot — to get fall crops started.
August, on the other hand, is “go time” for a big chunk of our fall and even winter crops. Starting the first day of the month, we are planting beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, and kale that will mature in October. By mid-month, celery and fennel go in along with more of the others. Then by late month we are planting lettuce and spinach. Some of the crops we plant in late August won’t be harvested until December and January, believe it or not. If we wait until temperatures cool down to plant, we lose the longer days that are essential to get the plants to the size they need to be by winter. For example, carrots planted on the 1st of October won’t size up for harvest until late March.
It probably won’t surprise you, though, that all of these cool-weather vegetables are not exactly happy with extended periods of very hot weather like we’ve been having pretty much since August 1st. At this point, we’ve had well over a week’s worth of 100 degree or hotter days. You might be thinking, “well, August is summer, isn’t it?”. But on average August is much cooler here than July or even June. Not this year.
Temperatures over 100 degrees present all kinds of challenges. Foremost is that of keeping our employees safe from heat-related illness, which means sending people home before it gets too hot. In July, we start work at 5:30 to beat the heat. But by late August, it’s still dark even at 6, so we can’t start until 6:30.
Very hot weather also causes our summer crops to ripen more quickly, increasing the harvest work for the crew at the same time they are working shorter hours. That leaves less time for planting and tending the fall crops. Yet the fall crops, if anything, are even more temperature-sensitive. The tiny seedlings that we are transplanting this time of year, for example, need to be planted when it’s still cool so we can irrigate them before it gets hot. There just haven’t been enough cool hours — much less cooler days — to get all the work done this August.
And speaking of irrigation, it’s been a non-stop job. Even more so than our transplanted crops, the ones we seed directly into the soil need to be kept constantly moist during very hot weather or the tiny seedlings will simply shrivel and die. That constant moisture means we can’t get into the fields to control weeds. And the weeds — heat-loving plants that grow much, much faster than our crops — grow even faster when they have that extra water to drink. Insects feed and breed faster when it’s hot, too.
So far, we’ve managed to avoid any major losses due to the heat. We’re really hoping for some cooler weather in September, but we’ve still got 4 days of August left, and they’re looking hot.