Season extension is something small, diversified, and niche farms like ours are engaged in nearly constantly. For many of us, extending the growing season is key to making a living. Whether we deal in produce, livestock, or some combination thereof, having food and food-producing animals outside of the timeframe when the local market is flooded with the same can make or break a balance sheet. Which is why you’ll never find us downplaying the significance of a good season extender and you’ll certainly find us engaging in more and more extension techniques as the years go on. But there’s another reason our growing season is expanding, and though it’s no less consequential to our success it gets far less attention.
Recently, while looking over historic weather data for our farm, I decided to plug our first and last frost dates into a spreadsheet and convert that into the graph below. The dates themselves, scrawled down in the back of a notebook, already confirmed what I had been feeling for many years — the season is naturally lengthening and significantly so — but I suspected a visual representation would be even more striking. And it is.
The days, weeks and months between the last and first frost of the year — represented here by the white space between the top and bottom graph lines — are our frost-free season, the time when we can reliably grow most food crops. Since 2003, the first year I planted something on this particular patch of earth, that season has lengthened by six weeks. Which means each year we now enjoy a month and a half worth of growing that would have been impossible a little over a decade ago. Split evenly between the spring and fall, what used to be three weeks of April and three more of October opened up to crop production only by the modern advent of row covers and hoophouses are now a gardener’s free for all.
While it may still be unwise to set out tomatoes and peppers the first week of April without some serious protection in our neck of the woods, there’s little reason we can’t have chill hardy crops like spinach, peas and potatoes going strong. And, with the season extension techniques that used to allow us to do those things somewhere round about Easter, we’re now looking at production estimates that land instead near St. Patrick’s Day.
Of course, planting “early” or planning to harvest “late” is risky business. There is no guarantee with Mother Nature. The trend line puts our frost dates a few weeks early and a few weeks later than we were when we began here, but weather trends, like other trends, can come and go in the blink of an eye. Perhaps 2018 will be a “good” year and we’ll be serving fresh peas come mid-March, or perhaps, it will be a bad one and we’ll only be wishing for readied planting ground come early May. It’s the risk of putting in an early crop — or a late one for harvest beyond the usual harvest window — and coming up empty handed that has kept farmers within the confines of the surest days of a season for generations. However, it’s also on-going adaptation to change that has kept farmers improving throughout the course of human history.
Here, we believe constant improvement is vital and that little worth accomplishing can be had without risk. Yet, we’ve been cautious too. Over the years we’ve slowly crept our planting dates backwards and continued harvesting until Mother Nature forced us out each year, including a very late set of potatoes this past season. As in other areas, we’ve often assumed those who have been doing this longer knew better. But on this, as on so many other topics, that hasn’t necessarily bore out. Many years we end up wishing we’d planted earlier when, in hindsight, we realize the last time our farm was subject to a killing frost was two or three or four weeks earlier than we’ve been told to expect. So, in the year ahead — weather willing — we’re leaping instead of crawling.
This year, in addition to the usual crop lists and seed orders, our planning notebook is filled with fancy date work and brainstormed ways of pushing a dozen days here and a dozen more there. We’ve become unsatisfied with simple extension of a static season. Our mind buzzes with the what-if of a lengthening too. What if we set out to extend instead from a date comfortably close to our official last frost, instead to a date in line with our micro-climate trend? Can we feed ourselves in March as we can in May? In April as in June? Can our dark days local menus be less boring than they once were? Some of this is already happening on a family-size scale, but what about a community? In 2018, we intend to find out.