Friday Takeaway: In farming, there’s no such thing as ‘normal’

  •   Jim Gipe/Pivot Media

Thursday, March 08, 2018

And just like that, winter is over (knock on wood). We may see more snow and freezing nights, but it’s tank-top weather in the greenhouse where we’re filling up the benches with thousands of onion seedlings. This week’s thaw has us tempted to plow the fields a month earlier than normal, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my brief farming career, it’s that there’s no such thing as “normal.”

We’re usually spared the hurricanes and floods that thrash the coast, and we aren’t touched by the vicious cycle of drought, wildfire and mudslides that has crippled California, so it may not feel like we’re on the front lines of climate change here in the Valley. But in the brief 13 years I’ve been farming, increasingly extreme weather and mounting disease pressures have changed the way we farm as we experiment each season to keep a step ahead of new risks.

It makes me feel ancient when I tell my new farm crew about the old days, back when I was a wee apprentice at Food Bank Farm in 2004, and it was still possible to grow truckloads of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes in the field and keep picking into September. That changed suddenly in 2009 when an August rainstorm blew spores of Phytophthora infestans (commonly known as late blight) up from the South and caused tomatoes up and down the East Coast to wither on the vine in the cool, damp days that followed.

Organic, non-toxic options for combating fungal diseases like Phytophthora aren’t as effective as minimizing the moisture on the leaves and soil, so we now grow all our heirlooms in high tunnels with drip irrigation. We still plant disease-resistant varieties of plum tomatoes in the field, but we’re considering moving those indoors, too, since even resistant plants succumb before all the fruit can ripen.

The season for basil gets shorter every year, too, as downy mildew sets in by the first of August, when just a few years ago we were making pesto until the first frost. Now spinach downy mildew is challenging winter production of this frost-hardy green that until recently was a safe bet for season extension.

It would be tempting to throw up our hands and quit farming when what once worked becomes impossible. But each new challenge presents an opportunity, and if we can succeed in growing tomatoes, basil or spinach when conditions are unfavorable, we know there will be demand.

We hedge our bets by keeping our crop mix diversified, so a cool wet season that’s bad for tomatoes might mean that fennel and celery thrive. We plant peppers and eggplant on raised beds, high and dry in the event of prolonged rains. We seed carrots and radishes in our sandier soils and drill wells wherever possible so that we can water them in a drought. And we’re using more row cover and beneficial insects to ward off pests like flea beetles and cabbage root maggots that are showing up earlier and lingering later than ever before.​​​​​​ All of these investments increase our costs of production, but without them we’d be out of the game.

Sometimes we actually benefit from these wonky weather patterns, like the recent trend of long, mild falls that has prompted us to beef up our late plantings of kale and Brussels sprouts so that we can keep harvesting into December. We’ve seen that backfire, though, when a sudden, extended spell of 16 degrees in October wiped out whole fields of greens.

The truth is that farming is a high-risk endeavor; no surprise there. At times, I’ve focused on the difficulties — low margins, long hours and routine failures. But after years of investing every penny and ounce of energy I have in my farm, I’m more committed than ever to finding new ways to grow good food in our rapidly changing environment. At least I know it will never be boring.

Caroline Pam owns and  operates Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland with her husband, Tim Wilcox. The farm grows organic vegetables, makes award-winning sriracha and salsa and hosts an annual hot-pepper festival, Chilifest, in September.