Braving a Central Texas Cold Spell


Photo by Carol Ann Sayle

They say the coming chill will be the worst in 14 years. We vaguely remember suffering that prior cold, which cost us just about all of our "winter" crops, but we were relatively new farmers then. We're "experienced" now.

From our 19 years of farming, we have learned a valuable lesson: over-prepare, and then lay the outcome in the hands of God, or anyone else who will take responsibility. If we've done our best, we are freed of blame. If we don't prepare, we must take it. Whatever the result is, we have to take that too.

The interesting thing about being urban farmers in the historic farming area that used to be called "The Bottomland" is that we live in one of the lowest areas of the city of Austin: the Colorado River Valley. Our farm is just across the road from Boggy Creek and one mile from the Colorado River. Cold air, being somehow heavier than hot air, sinks. So when the weatherman says the temperature low will be 22 degrees, represented by readings at a military base in the nearby foothills of the Texas Hill Country, we don't pay much attention.

I sympathize with the pioneers who watched through our windows then.

The base is paved with asphalt, but more importantly its higher elevation attracts heat rising from the concrete heat sink of the downtown area. If the wind kept blowing, then the temperature here would be the same as there, because the air would be "homogenized." But the wind generally lies low as night falls, and with a clear sky, we will be many degrees colder. Twenty-two degrees there, 10 to 15 degrees here.

The wind is coming from the north at a 30-mile-per-hour clip, undoing yesterday's row-covering preparations. A real conundrum. I watch from the farmhouse windows as the polyester fabric is wrenched from the sandbags and shovelfuls of soil holding it tight to the Earth—and sent upwards in billowing balloon-like forms. Nothing I can do right now but imagine animal shapes, as if looking at puffy clouds. I'll have to wait until darkness calms the wind, and with the spotlights of my neighbors' houses—which point directly at us in case we are criminals—lighting my way dimly, I'll replace the covers and hope for the best.

A good thing about farming in central Texas is that it can be done year-round. The challenge is that in late summer and late winter, farming can be rife with terrible outcomes. And this past year, with the hottest and driest summer since 1854 and now one of the four coldest and wettest winters since 1854, it has indeed been challenging. But it makes me glad that we weren't here in 1854, because if that year inspired weather data collection then it must have been a horrible one! I sympathize with the pioneers who watched through our windows then.

A second good thing about farming here is that you can be totally wiped out one season and rebound in the next. So, with that consolation in mind, I head out to pour water into the chickens' waterers, since of course all the pipes have been drained or disconnected. And the hens do get thirsty, even on a day as memorable as this.