Beautiful Winter Days, Yes, but…
Last month was the 2nd driest December on record for Sonoma County, AND, more importantly, the 2nd coldest December on record for Sonoma County… and January hasn’t been any better yet. While the daytime temperatures have been in the upper fifties to low seventies with clear, beautiful, sunny skies, the nights have been cloudless and cold. The natural cold sink of our valley bottom has been shockingly frigid with 11 to 12 hours of subfreezing temperatures every day and lows in the mid to upper teens! Yes, when the mornings are around 35 degrees in Santa Rosa and there’s a little frost on windshields, the temps hover around 30 and 31 degrees in Sebastopol, and drop to 22 degrees at our house at Singing Frogs Farm and drop again to 18 or 17 degrees in the lowest fields below our house. When temperatures are this cold for this long, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING stops growing!
For those of you who love to support local food and local growers, winter farming in Sonoma County presents some challenges to us farmers. While some farmers may have land up on the edges of Sonoma Mountain, or in the banana belt around Occidental, many others of us are growing in low valley bottoms where the construction of houses has been disallowed leaving the land for agricultural or conservation purposes only. While the very limited sunlight in the dark of winter (less than 8 hours per day) already has crucial negative impacts on vegetable crops this far north, the deep freeze that our county has been in since Thanksgiving has been even more devastating.
When you read about heavy crop losses to weather, plagues, or other issues around the world, it’s important to realize that it can happen right here in our communities – even when the days are bright, sunny and beautiful. One shocker from the deep freeze has been the lack of growth of even pasture grasses. We, as well as the many dairy farmers in the county, are being forced to buy alfalfa to feed our livestock and our chickens have no green grass to scratch around in. More troubling, heads of lettuce which were about the size of a softball at Thanksgiving haven’t put on a single new leaf in 7 weeks – they’re still the exact same size! After all, what plant wants to put out tender new growth when 12 out of every 24 hours we’re experiencing subfreezing temperatures – into the upper teens! So our lettuce sits…. and sits… and sits in the fields, waiting for warmth and light to grow… just a little more.
While waiting for our crops may not be the worst problem one can imagine, it precipitates another more devastating problem: If you are a truly organic (pro-Mother Nature) farm as we are and you don’t use any sprays (not even organic pesticides), then the longer your plants sit in the fields, the more damage is wrought by pests. Of 14 lettuce crops we planted back in September and October for a December and January harvest, we’ve lost 8 of the crops so far to mice, slugs and snails (mostly mice). Usually, our crops outgrow any damage by pests, but since our crops are in stasis, the pests are devouring them wholesale! We’ve had complete crop loss on some lacinato Kale, Collards, Cauliflower, Broccoli, Bulb Fennel, and numerous spinach and lettuce crops – tens of thousands of plants that were ravaged by the cold and/or by pests.
While we have had some suprising successes this winter, and have learned a lot about plant growth, it has been an exceptionally difficult winter for us to keep production up. One other large, local CSA had eight things in their CSA box last week and only ONE of those was freshly harvested – everything else was processed foods or storage crops from the autumn. We faired a bit better with 4 fresh-harvested vegetables in last week’s box, but we’re barely holding it together. Gladly, many of our CSA members understand this, and many more are coming to the understanding that food security is really a very thin veil that separates us consumers from the global, industrialized food production system. One Singing Frogs Farm CSA member recently shared with us…
“I just want you to know how wonderfully connected I feel to the earth because of you. I often hear of “crop failures” in the world, but because I can buy anything I want in our wealthy US economy, especially in California, I rarely understand what this really means at a gut level.I am enjoying knowing that this cold, dry winter is making it hard for me to eat the delicious food you grow for me. It even makes me more aware of the plantings in my own yard! I willingly and gladly give up your wealth of delicacies during these hard times because I know when times are good (like last fall), everything tastes soooo much better than usual!
I don’t want to buy veggies and feel a little under nourished in the veggie dept. This is a new feeling for me and I like it. It’s good to crave the new fresh greens of spring when deep in the middle of winter. I’m going to eat veggies this spring with an entirely new appreciation. It is easy to eat junky, fast food in our lives when we stop appreciating how important the farmers and their crops are in creating good food for us.
We forget the food is grown by someone; it doesn’t just show up on a truck and go into a grocery store.My experience with CSA has been worth every penny I’ve spent on it and indeed, has returned to me far more nourishment than I ever expected. Your farm nourishes my body, and also my soul.” – Karren Wofford, CSA Member
Thank you Karen.
(c) 2011 Paul Kaiser
Paul Kaiser served in the Peace Corps in The Gambia, West Africa. He worked with several rural agrarian communities to develop sustainable land use management systems that incorporated multi-purpose trees in the farm fields and gardens for soil replenishment and protection, biodiversity promotion, and household products such as fuel wood, timber, fruits, leaves, animal fodder, etc. Since then, Paul earned dual Masters Degrees in Natural Resources Management and Sustainable Development from the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica and the American University in Washington D.C. In the last four years, Paul and his wife Elizabeth have married sustainable land management with local food production at their biodiverse and family-friendly Singing Frogs Farm. In addition, Paul created his “Night Heron Woodworks” business, where this accomplished furniture maker sells hand-crafted, salvaged hard wood pieces.