Frost Watch (Or Why Fruit Farmers Are Sleepy)

Posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 by Erin M

Farmers in general are already getting to be a little tired this time year. There is more sunshine, more daylights hours….so that means that every waking hour is spent doing…something. Whether it’s planting, preparing fields or doing one of a million other jobs that need to be done….farmers are in a word…busy. Spring means that we’re out in the fields for longer…and while the hours of sunshine may make the days feel longer – they often actually feel shorter, because there is so much to pack into each and every day on the farm to make it count. On a fruit and vegetable farm like ours…we have tons of things to plant, grow and produce so that the fruits and vegetables we grow do so… before we’re knee deep in white stuff all over again.

Farming brings with it a lot of risks…but for farms like ours where we have fruits and vegetables…it is the risk of frost is what holds us hostage for most of the spring.

Fluctuating temperatures bring with them warm days where plants start growing and thriving, but quite often are accompanied by at least a few cooler nights, where the risk of frost presents the scary reality of damage or death of our beloved plants we pride ourselves on nurturing, protecting and caring for. Strawberries are the biggest risk on our farm…they’re low to the ground, tender and extremely susceptible to frost damage….they’re the ones that keep us up at night…literally.

We spend our springs carefully watching the weather for possible risks of frost…always watching the temperatures to see what Mother Nature has in store for us. If the temperature drops below 5 degrees Celsius we are at a greater risk for frost. If it drops below 3, you’re really getting us nervous. We also watch the dewpoint (the temperature at which dew forms on plants), because the lower the dewpoint…the faster the temperature will drop and the faster frost can form on the plants – damage and injury can sometimes happen before we can even see it, which is why we have to be vigilant. We’re also carefully watching the air temperature outside..but also the temperatures that are on the ground. The temperature in the air can be safe…but down on the ground can be absolutely frigid for our poor young, tender plants and the blossoms they’re producing.

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Strawberry blossoms from May 2015

We don’t want clear nights…nights where we have cloud cover we get a better nights sleep because the clouds are acting like a blanket of insulation to protect our sweet plants. When it’s a clear night, the risk of frost rises drastically. If there is a slight breeze…there is a lower risk of inversion (cold air swooping in below the warm air to settle on the plants) so there less likelihood that frost will settle. If there are strong winds and the temperature have dropped low – it can also be damaging because the cold wind becomes frigid for the plants….it can even be more risky when this happens because instead of just a risk of frost…we can see the risk of freezing happening
If we do get cold nights, clear nights and/or still nights…and strawberries are no longer covered by straw and especially when they have some bloom on them….we don’t get much sleep. We watch the weather constantly. Checking the cloud cover. Checking the breeze. Hoping the dew point doesn’t drop too much. We can be up every hour or less on “Frost Watch”. Out in the fields checking on our plants, the ground temperatures and the conditions around the farm from the ground to the sky…watching and waiting…hoping for the best and planning to do whatever we can if the worst happens.

As dew points and temperatures drop, checks become more frequent and then a call is made. Frost is happening, or imminent. We must do whatever we can to protect the plants and the blossoms…to save the plants and their crops from the cold weather; to protect whatever we can, in whatever ways we can.

With that decision made, we throw on another sweater, button up a jacket and head outside in the dark cold night, flashlights in hand. Pumps are started, and water starts whirling. We irrigate all night if we have to…hours on end…until the temperature starts to rise. When the warmth of the water hits the plants, it warms them up just enough that they can’t freeze or be damaged from the frost…but we have to continue to irrigate until it warms up enough that the water hitting the plants won’t cause more damage…so we sit and wait…hoping that we made the call soon enough. Hoping that we didn’t make it too soon. Hoping that the blossoms on the strawberry plants will survive. Checking to make sure frost isn’t settling and rechecking temperatures as the moon moves overhead.

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Established strawberry plants we’re working hard to keep safe!

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Strawberry plant, planted May 2015 that is young, not established and also at risk of damage or death with frost or freeze.

This week is looking a little scary for frost warnings in our neck of the woods. We will be out checking most nights this week because conditions are setting themselves to look favourable for frost….and we have to do whatever we can to protect our crops, our livelihood, and those delicious strawberries that everyone loves so much.

So if you see a fruit and vegetable farmer looking a little tired this week…if they’re looking a little dazed and confused or like they haven’t slept in days…it’s probably because haven’t actually slept much lately. Because not only have they been working long days – but there have been a lot of long nights too. Fruit farmers this time of year could use another cup of coffee…or two. And a nap….or three. Good thing we love what we do though…because there are fields to tend to and crops to plant and there will soon be crops to harvest…nap time has to wait…there’ll be time for a good nights sleep when things are moving a slower pace, there isn`t as much work to be done and the strawberry plants are tucked into bed under a blanket of straw and a layer of fresh snow, safe and sound from the elements and out of harms way once again.

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About Erin M

Erin grew up on a fruit and vegetable farm just north of Peterborough, Ontario. Along with her Dad and brother they grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for farmers markets, grocery stores and their on farm market.