On a vegetable farm, however, the weather is always a major factor determining the work we do, when we do it and how we do it: from germinating seeds, to transplanting, to weeding/cultivating, from harvest to storage, and up to selling at market. A wrong forecast can scramble an entire day’s, if not week’s, plan for work.
Although we know we can’t control the weather, we have developed a few superstitions and traditions. We know that if all market-goers from the farm bring our rain gear (rain pants, coat and boots) with us down to market, that it won’t rain during that market, even (and especially) if it is forecast. This has worked almost EVERY time. The few times when one worker left their rain gear behind: downpour. On the farm, we believe that overhead irrigation is linked to rain. If you want to rain, run the overhead irrigation. It is strange how often this works. Caitlan will go out into the dry field, spending an hour at least setting up the pipes and the pump, get it all running, watering the little carrots and beets, and then an hour into her set: rain. But we had no way to deter the late threat of frost last week.
The strong cold front that came in last Thursday night brought along a chance of frost. We were already in the process of removing, bundling, and organizing all the row cover that had been out in the field since early April, but the chance of frost had us unravelling and re-deploying all of it again. It seemed somewhat unlikely that a frost would actually occur, but we did not want to take that risk with plants that represent three months of work, and which constitute almost all of our vegetables to harvest in June and July. So last Friday at 1:30 PM, we called all hands on deck for row cover, and the transplanting and tomato mulching was pushed off to another day.
Timing is crucial for efficient, effective tillage, seeding, transplanting, cultivation, irrigation, trellising, pest management, disease management, and harvest. Therefore, we are constantly and repeatedly checking several weather forecasts (NOAA, Weather.com, Weather Underground), and always making best guesses about what may actually happen on the farm. We’re thinking about the next week, few days, tomorrow, tonight, this afternoon, and the next few hours. Despite our best efforts, our expectations are often not accurate, and as a team we work to pivot very quickly from focusing on harvesting basil say, to packing produce indoors.
Harvest managers check the dew first thing in the morning, then look at the sky to determine if cloud cover may extend their window of harvest, while considering how long the sun has been up, and the temperature, all to divine whether the harvest window that morning is one and a half hours, for example, or longer or shorter. If the window is smaller, the manager asks for more people to accomplish the work more quickly. If it turns out that thirty minutes into an hour-long harvest the clouds burn off, and cut the harvest short, we are forced us to resume the next day.
On the other hand, if the clouds and moisture linger through the day, other aspects of our work are affected. Cultivation is delayed. This practice disturbs the soil, lifting the roots of the weeds to the surface where the sun can dry out and kill them. Even if the soil is dry enough to cultivate, it is not effective at killing many weeds without at least several hours of strong sunlight.
On cool, cloudy, wet days, we must also consider disease management. Many plant diseases thrive in moist conditions. Late Blight of tomatoes and potatoes requires a wet leaf surface to infect a plant. When we experience several days of cloudy moist weather, even if it doesn't actually rain, we are forced to stop working in those crops, and start supporting their health as much as possible. Post-harvest storage comes in to play on wet days, too. If we harvested wet basil, green beans, tomatoes, strawberries, or raspberries, these crops would most likely rot before they reached the market. Berries, basil, and beans in particular spoil very quickly if harvested while wet. For these crops, we cross our fingers for dry afternoons, and the manager of these crops is often checking the patch to determine if the crop is dry enough to harvest.
We check the weather, look outside, make our best guess, and make a plan. Then we revise our plans every couple of hours, always working to support all our crops in healthy growth so they are high quality at harvest, and stay that way till they reach market and onto your table.