Farmers Don’t Get Snow Days! This Winter a Challenging One for Area Farmers

Many people came out of last week’s snow storm with stories to tell. I know of several people who had to abandon their vehicle and walk miles to get home, or bunk with a friend when they were not able to make it home on Wednesday. Many others enjoyed a couple of snow days.

Farmers don’t get to take snow days and in fact they have to work extra hard when the weather turns bitter cold or we get ice and snow. This has been a particularly harsh winter for many of our area farmers, the ones who bring you farm fresh produce and flowers at area farmers’ markets and restaurants and through community supported agriculture shares. Many of these farmers grow through the winter to meet the year-round demand for locally grown food.

Immediate Challenges from Snowstorm

Last week’s snow brought immediate challenges to farmers who grow crops in high tunnels, unheated greenhouses that are used to extend the season of horticultural crops like vegetables, strawberries, and cut flowers. High tunnels are invaluable for allowing farmers to produce throughout the winter, and most winters the snow is not an issue. One experienced piedmont farmer reports that he can only remember two winters in the past 10-15 years prior to this one where he really had to worry about  snow damaging his high tunnels. Most high tunnels are not designed to handle a snow load, especially the quonset-style rounded tunnels, so farmers have to knock accumulating snow off of the tunnels every few hours to keep them from collapsing under the weight of the snow.

At Granite Springs Farm in Pittsboro, farmers Meredith Leight, Laura Reedy Stewart, and Ches Stewart grow oyster mushrooms, carrots, lettuce, and greens in their high tunnel during the winter. They also use row covers inside the tunnel for extra protection when the temperatures are really cold. While most of us were warm and cozy inside our homes during the snow, these farmers were venturing out every 2-3 hours to manually remove snow from their tunnels.

Ches Stewart knocks the snow off from inside the high tunnel at Granite Springs Farm in Pittsboro. Photo by Laura Reedy Stewart.

Ches Stewart knocks the snow off from inside the high tunnel at Granite Springs Farm in Pittsboro. Oyster mushrooms are grown in the hanging bags on the far left. Photo by Laura Reedy Stewart.

Snow-free high tunnel at Granite Springs Farm in Pittsboro. Photo by Laura Reedy Stewart.

Snow-free high tunnel at Granite Springs Farm in Pittsboro. Photo by Laura Reedy Stewart.

Some farmers were just not able to keep up with the snowfall. I know of at least six local farms that had tunnels collapse. At Windcrest Farm Organics in Monroe, farmer Mary Roberts and her husband were able to protect five of their high tunnels but their efforts could not save the sixth tunnel which collapsed under the snow load (photo below).

Collapsed high tunnel at Windcrest Farm Organics. Photo by Mary Roberts.

Collapsed high tunnel at Windcrest Farm Organics. Photo by Mary Roberts.

Another local farm lost their brand new high tunnel in spite of their efforts to remove snow (photos below).

Collapsed high tunnel at local farm (farmer photo).

Collapsed high tunnel at local farm (farmer photo).

Collapsed high tunnel at local farm.

Interior view of above collapsed high tunnel at local farm (farmer photo).

Farmer Ken Dawson of Maple Spring Gardens did not have to worry at all about the snow on his high tunnels. Ken is using the Atlas Snow Arch gothic-shaped tunnel with a beefed-up truss system. He spaced his bows 5 feet apart and purchased extra trusses for added strength (the Snow Arch tunnel comes standard with a truss every third bow). Ken feels that the higher initial cost for his tunnels is well worth it for the added durability and peace of mind. The tunnels endured a 10″ snow fall in 2002 with no problems.

Gothic-type high tunnel at Maple Spring Gardens. Note the truss system which provides support and can handle a snow load.

Gothic-type high tunnel at Maple Spring Gardens. Note the truss system which provides support for the bows and can handle a snow load.

Several factors play a role in how vulnerable a high tunnel is during a snow event. Some of these factors relate to the tunnel itself – the type of tunnel (quonset, gothic), bow spacing, truss system, overall construction quality – and some relate to the snow – amount, type of snow, how fast it falls, etc. A tunnel may be able to withstand several inches of dry fluffy snow but wet and heavy snow or snow mixed with ice is much more dangerous to tunnels.

If you had problems with your high tunnel in the recent snow events, I would like to hear from you. We are collecting information to determine what we can learn from this and help growers avoid problems. Please email me to discuss. Farm names can be kept confidential.

This winter’s snow storms have also had indirect effects on farmers who supply restaurants: when restaurants close for snow days, farmers lose business. One farmer reports that he had to “compost a good deal of product during the last few snow storms” due to restaurants closing.

General Challenges from Long, Harsh Winter

Long before we had our first snowfall in late January, this winter had already proven to be a real bear for many of our farmers. Excessively cold, rainy, and cloudy conditions over the past few months have been less than ideal for crops which are surviving but not thriving. In a normal winter, farmers are able to use row covers to protect overwintering crops in the field but this year with low temperatures in the single digits row covers were not enough to protect crops and many died if they were not protected by some type of tunnel.

Farmer Doug Jones of Piedmont Biofarm worked hard through the snow storm to successfully keep the snow from accumulating on his tunnels. He has one high tunnel and also several intermediate-sized caterpillar tunnels. Doug said that this winter has been very challenging because of the extreme cold temperatures, rain, and lack of sun. The tunnels have protected the plants from freeze damage but the crops are not thriving. Doug sells at the Durham Farmers’ Market and has been going to market with about 25% of their normal volume of produce this winter. His harvest goes first to his CSA customers, then he takes what’s left to market. Harvest is about 3 weeks behind on crops planted the same date as last winter. Many farmers report the same challenges with having very little produce to take to market through the winter.

Doug Jones removes a row cover from inside his caterpillar tunnel at Piedmont Biofarm.

Doug Jones removes a row cover from a cabbage crop inside his caterpillar tunnel at Piedmont Biofarm. Row covers are used inside tunnels for an added layer of protection.

Doug inspects slow-growing 10-week old lettuce plants. He is just now able to start harvesting, about three weeks behind schedule.

Doug inspects slow-growing 10-week old lettuce plants. He is just now able to start harvesting the lettuce, about three weeks behind schedule.

This arugula was direct-seeded 7 weeks ago and is way behind schedule due to the low temperatures and lack of sun.

This arugula was direct-seeded 7 weeks ago and is way behind schedule due to the low temperatures and lack of sun.

Greenhouse growers who use heated greenhouses to grow out-of-season crops like tomatoes have also felt the pinch this winter. Ralph “Screech” Sweger of Screech Owl Greenhouses in Pittsboro reports that below normal temperatures and above normal rainfall have had a negative impact on production and cash flow. The tomatoes have a difficult time growing when there is so little sunlight. Excessive humidity leads to increased fungal diseases on his tomatoes and lettuce because the plants never really dry out. These diseases have significantly reduced crop yield. His lettuce house is heated by propane and his heating costs have doubled this winter. He heats his tomato house with used motor oil and the oil has become more difficult to procure this winter due to demand. He has lowered the temperature in the tomato house to help conserve fuel but that can slow plant growth.

Screech Sweger in his tomato greenhouse.

Screech Sweger inspects plants in his tomato greenhouse.

As discussed above, vegetable yields are way down due to the abnormally cold winter, which also has had an effect on farmers’ market attendance. So many Saturdays have been extremely cold and rainy which keeps all but the most diehard customers away. So even when farmers do have enough produce to take to market they may not have high enough customer turnout to justify the trip.

Farmers who raise livestock must spend extra time caring for animals in these conditions. At Perry-winkle Farm, farmers Cathy Jones and  Mike Perry grow vegetables and cut flowers and raise pastured poultry and pigs. Mike is in charge of taking care of the livestock. They just got a generator to be ready for power outages, not for them, Mike assures me, but for the animals! They currently have about 160 broiler chicks that must be kept warm with heat lamps in the brooder. They also have three mobile hen houses for the 400 laying hens that are out in the fields. When the temperatures are extremely cold Mike has to haul hot water down there regularly because the chickens’ drinking water freezes. They also need to collect eggs 2-3 times a day so they don’t freeze. The pigs get extra hay and are fine in the cold. Cathy reports that they had to reinforce the plastic on the cold frame next to the greenhouse because the sheets of ice and snow coming off of the greenhouse had damaged it. The cold frame is full of transplants that they have not yet been able to plant due to the extreme cold temperatures. All of the cut flowers planted last fall are protected by row covers. They have not been able to harvest much from overwintered crops because they have not been growing.

Two week old red broiler chicks stay warm under heat lamps in the brooder at Perry-winkle Farm.

Two week old red broiler chicks stay warm under heat lamps in the brooder at Perry-winkle Farm. In a couple of weeks they will be put in chicken tractors on pasture.

These Australorp and Barred Rock pullets will soon be big enough to be put in an egg-mobile out on pasture at Perry-winkle Farm.

These Australorp and Barred Rock pullets will soon be big enough to be put in an egg-mobile out on pasture at Perry-winkle Farm.

Perry-winkle Farm eggs

Perry-winkle Farm eggs must be collected 2-3 times a day when it’s really cold before they freeze.

4 month old pastured pigs at Perry-winkle Farm.

Four month old pastured pigs at Perry-winkle Farm. The pigs are of course happy with all the rain and mud!

These transplants in the cold frame at Perry-winkle Farm should already be in the ground but are delayed due to the abnormally cold temperatures.

These transplants in the cold frame at Perry-winkle Farm should already be in the ground but are delayed due to the abnormally cold temperatures.

These overwintered cut flower crops were planted last fall and are now protected with row covers at Perry-winkle Farm.

These overwintered cut flower crops were planted last fall and are now protected with row covers at Perry-winkle Farm.

Hopefully spring is just around the corner and this harsh winter will be a distant memory. Remember what farmers go through to grow our produce and flowers and raise the meat and eggs we like to eat – support them by buying locally through community supported agriculture, at farmers’ markets, and from farm-to-fork restaurants!

Written By

Debbie RoosExtension Agent, Agriculture - Sustainable / Organic Production (919) 542-8202 Chatham County, North Carolina

Posted on Feb 21, 2014

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