Winter on the Farm: Can the Crops Be Saved?

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Carol Ann Sayle


The giant balls of polyester row cover, some of them three to four feet in diameter, stored in the attic of the barn for almost a year, plummeted heavily to the dirt floor in a cloud of dust. Son Tom crouched ten feet above us, having ascended the very prudent, very safe, three-legged harvest ladder to the attic. The attic is partially floored with plywood, and the rest remains simply rafters with a few boards here and there, totally unattached, but designed to thrill, for anyone foolhardy enough to step upon them. Tom showed no interest in being daring, nor in learning how to fly.

Instead he revealed exciting news. He had found a clutch of eggs, 20 or so, likely months old, amidst the pillowy row covers. They looked like the white work of Spotty Dotty, the White Leghorn pet, but their color had turned pearly ivory in their dusty isolation. Carefully he handed them down to intern Marissa and me. Very carefully, for any sudden move or shoddy handling of ancient eggs might result in explosions yielding such an aroma that we would run, and Tom would consider the rafters as safer havens.

The young lettuces, uncovered, would be "flying naked." I think that phrase means "irrational risk taking" (but it may also pertain to future airport adventures).

I set the possible egg bombs aside and later delivered them to the new, forming compost pile. There they can add something interesting to the mounds of pecan leaves that will soon be "smoking" in the early morning chill. Maybe poached bombs.

The row cover continued its downward tumbles, and finally it was all on the ground. It was obvious that some balls had been quickly formed last spring, by rolling them end upon end down various muddy footpaths (we remembered those rains, fondly), between the planting beds they protected. So they were heavier than when new. Now the mud was dried and pulverized, and flung itself around in massive dust clouds. Marissa and I moved away and covered our faces with our bandanas until the air cleared.

Then we rolled them out all squiggly and corkscrewing, determining their lengths (most 200 feet long) and widths (how many beds), promising to write this information upon their ends once they were installed over the crops.

We were late in getting the covers onto the beds. We'd had a couple of mild frosts, but the first 28 degree freeze got our attention. We were a bit surprised at the damage, as with the warm days, the ground surely had a lot of heat to release into the immediate atmosphere wherein the crops resided. But some plants, succulent with warmth and irrigation, found themselves blanched and blistered the day after the freeze.

The damage takes a while to show. Sure, on the morning of the freeze, ice crystals dot the leaves, sparkling in the early sunlight. You think, well, when the sun comes out, the ice will melt and all will be swell. Sometimes. With many crops, like carrots and spinach, this is usually so. But often the damage renders the leaves of kale and lettuce unsalable.

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Carol Ann Sayle

Turning from the proof of our failure—the blanched leaves of kale—we set out to cover the future. Some crops on the farm, like the kale, are tiring and no longer worth covering, especially with the knowledge that there will never be enough row cover to protect the entire farm. And not enough sand bags to hold the cover in place against winds that roar in from the North the minute they see row cover in our hands. Invariably, the winds peak at 20 to 30 miles per hour right before evening, when interns are long gone home. Thus a lot of re-row covering is handled by Larry and me at night, by the light of the moon and the neighbors' security lights.

We endured two more freezes after the first one—each down to 23 degrees. But more and more of the crops were protected, until finally we had no more covers. The young lettuces, uncovered, would be "flying naked." I think that phrase means "irrational risk taking" (but it may also pertain to future airport adventures).

Since the forecast for our area is a warmer and drier winter, we ordered more row cover. So far, the winter has indeed been drier (extreme drought) but decidedly colder. It's a big expense for something that has a too-brief life. It tears, snags, and rots, it gets hung up in trees, sprayed by feral tom cats, chewed by mice, and stripped for nests by birds.

But without it, our winter season would be over in short order, so it truly is a miracle. A dusty, heavy, contrary miracle, but without it, we'd be "flying naked."

Presented by

Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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