When the weather gets rough, farmers fight back
Local farmers adapt to unpredictable springs and wet summers
Apples are particularly vulnerable to a hard frost once their blossoms have begun to bloom.
Photos by Tom Rivers
Remember in the spring of 2011 when the rain didn’t seem to stop? Many farmers couldn’t get into their fields until June when the fields dried out. The rainfall for March, April and May that year—18.41 inches—broke the Western New York record by three inches.
And then last year, it was the opposite. The heat hit, and hit early with eighty-degree days in March, the warmest March in 141 years, dating back to the Weather Service records from 1871. Apple trees were tricked by the warm weather last year. They started to blossom far too early. In late April, when the trees were in bloom, a deep freeze hit fruit farms, destroying flowers and wiping out the apple crop for many farmers.
In Elba last summer, workers created a channel to move water off the flooded land.
Growers don’t necessarily blame climate change for the woes. But they agree we are seeing fierce weather swings that threaten their crops. Cornell University research shows the average temperature has risen two degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, and it’s up four degrees during the winter in those four decades. “People are thinking about it more, but the jury is still out (about climate change),” says Eric Brown, co-owner of the 250-acre Orchard Dale Fruit Farm in Waterport.
The farm fought back against the freeze last spring by irrigating berries. Spraying them with water so they are covered with ice helps preserve the crop. When the ice melts, it produces heat. “We frost protected all of our berries or we definitely wouldn’t have had a berry crop,” Brown says.
He knows growers in the Hudson Valley who hire helicopters to move out cold air and draw down warm wind during a spring freeze. Other farmers are looking at “wind machines” to circulate air when the cold hits and blossoms are vulnerable. However, the farm community has more pressing issues on its plate.
“It’s a thought, but not a concern,” he says about the recent weather woes. “There’s a lot of other things to worry about before that.”
Debbie Breth, a fruit researcher with Cornell, has worked with the Lake Ontario fruit industry for twenty-eight years. She has witnessed earlier seasons in recent years, with flowers blooming sooner. She thinks some apple varieties are unlikely to hold up if the weather patterns continue. “We are seeing more extremes,” she says. “We get more inches of rain when it does rain.”
She acknowledges some skepticism in the farming community about climate change. But growers are trying to become more versed in frost and freeze protection techniques. They also are being more choosey in where they plant trees. “They are studying ideal locations,” she says. “The north-facing slope seems to be ideal. A south-facing slope is at a higher risk of frost.”
Farmers, like Brown, are also putting in more drainage tile to move water off the fields when there is too much rain. And many farmers are developing better irrigation systems to combat drought, which gripped much of the nation last year.
Christy Hoepting, a vegetable researcher with Cornell, has worked with local farms for thirteen years. “We are dealing with more extreme weather events,” she says. “That is undeniable.”
She also sees the impact in the insects and pests that flourish in rainy weather or the heat and drought. “Farmers today have to be ready for anything,” she says.
Many local vegetable growers plant cover crops to help hold down the soil when it’s windy. Farms also have adopted minimum and zone tillage, instead of plowing up an entire field. That helps preserve the soil from wind and hard-driving rain. Hoepting sees miles of drainage tiles put in every year. Those tiles get the water out of the fields after a big rain.
One of the area’s largest vegetable farms, Torrey Farms in Elba, has invested in drainage tiles in recent years to “optimize the land better,” says Maureen Torrey Marshall, co-owner of the farm. However, she doesn’t blame climate change for the weather swings lately.
“I’m not a big climate change proponent,” she says. “We’ve seen these patterns before with rain one year, and then dryness. It’s just part of the cycle.”
Invasive pests can find their way to New York as part of global trade. The insects can be transferred by pallets. She cites the swede midge menace that preys on cabbage as one example of an invasive pest.
“That’s what I worry about,” says Marshall.
Tom Rivers is a reporter based in Albion. He wrote Farm Hands: Hard work and Hard Lessons from Western New York Farms. He just published a new book, All Ears: A Decade of Listening and Learning from Small-Town Western New Yorkers.