Casaubon's Book

The Weird Season

On January 1, it was 48 degrees on my farm. My sons were at the playground, dressed in sweatshirts and jeans, rather than winter coats and mittens. Their ice skates had yet to be used this year. Their sleds haven’t even come out of the garage. Walking out in the warm weather among the goats, I noticed my cowslips and primroses are up and there are buds on the pussy willows.

On the farm, we measure the severity of the winter by the final full barn cleaning before spring – the last one before heavy snow and ice make it impossible to get a wheelbarrow in and out of the barn. In a cold year, the last barn cleaning happens before Thanksgiving. A good year is one when we get one in early December. Eric mucked out the barn on the first day of the new year, which has never happened before.

Today, on the fourth day of the year, an arctic blast dropped us below 0 for the first time – it was -1 F when I got up this morning. I had sent my groggy husband down in the night to turn on the backup furnace (our wood cookstove doesn’t hold a fire overnight, and I was concerned about pipes in our kitchen freezing at temps below 0, only to discover that said backup furnace doesn’t work – how long it hasn’t been working is an open question – we haven’t needed to turn it on this year.

The temperatures have been not only warm, but bizarrely so – there’s nothing unusual about a day that starts below zero F here – what is unusual is that it hasn’t happened before this. I went around and finally sealed up the windows on the last day of December – something I ordinarily do in October or early November. We’ve had days that I could open them up and let in fresh air through all of December.

Following our incredibly rainy fall (starting with Irene at the end of August, we’ve had more than 40 inches of rain) and an unusually warm one, we had a heavy (and not unexpected) outbreak of meningeal parasite in our goats – a parasite carried by snails and transmitted by white tailed deer, it is one of the banes of our existance here, and is particularly problematic when an unusually wet, warm fall encourages the snails – we can treat it, but we’ve never had six cases in two weeks before. On the other hand, we’ve never had 46 inches of rain between August and the end of December before, either.

Now weather is complicated and climate is complicated and you will note that I make no claims about what has or hasn’t influenced things. What i do know is that in ten years of watching the weather, our average last and first frost dates have moved – and the fall last frost date has moved more. Seven of ten years have had higher than expected for the region rainfall, four of them dramatically higher. Snowfall totals seem to vary more dramatically than they have in the recent past in the area as well – and we have more years when early melt offs or unusually warm falls and early winters are followed by long periods of cold with no snow cover – tough on perennial plants. I’ve watched my perennials break dormancy earlier as well.

The aggregate of my research and watching my site probably isn’t worth very much scientifically – I haven’t lived here long enough and the local data wasn’t taken from my precise site, so its value is uncertain. What it does teach me is that adaptation to complicated weather is something that has to be a priority in our lives, however.

What does that mean? First, it means keeping good records – no one but you and I will be watching exactly when the buds unfurl on your property, what the high and low temperatures are, when the birds come back, what the average rainfalls are. If you live in a place of high variability in weather, as I do, this can be a major issue – the local weather sensors are set about 5 miles from my house, but much, much lower, and the local weather forecasts are often not even accurate at DESCRIBING the weather at my house when it is happening, much less forseeing it – it is very common to look at the weather sensors and have them report conditions very different than the ones we are experiencing. Two years ago, we had four and a half FEET of snow fall in a matter of four days – the local weather station reported that we had six inches. So records for your site are incredibly important – you can’t rely on regional statistics to necessarily be accurate (and that’s one reason I wouldn’t make any claims about my site because I am comparing my personal data with regional and local statistics). You can learn a lot by watching a place for a long time.

Second, it means thinking about patterns – and about appropriate responses to patterns. We have noticed that while our last frost date seems to have shifted back a bit, the first fall frost is increasingly late and has had a much more dramatic change. In some ways this is good news for us – it means our fall gardens have that much more to go. A good friend of mine ate ratatouille from her garden on Halloween – that hasn’t happened much in upstate NY history. Our average first frost date is supposed to be the first week of October, but in 5 out of ten years has been significantly later than that – including three of ten in which it has come after October 25. That gives me more incentive to push boundaries and extend seasons into the fall.

The bad side of that for us, as goatkeepers is that our single biggest goat health issue is the outbreak of meningeal worm caused by wet, warm falls. We are still working on strategies to reduce our exposure – we’ve introduced ducks to our pasture to eat snails, trained our Great Pyrenees dog Mac to keep the deer off the pastures as much as possible, and added cattle to our rotation, since they are less vulnerable to the parasite and if someone is going to eat those snails by accident, better it be the cows.
We’re also working on exploring whether guinea fowl or geese might reduce the snail population further – but we’re also recognizing that this will be an ongoing problem for us, and preparing to treat it. One question we haven’t been able to get clarity from any vet on is whether it is possible to select effectively for resistance to meningeal worm – camelids (llamas, alpacas, camels) are much more vulnerable to meningeal parasites, while sheep and cows much less, but whether there is variation in resistance to goat breeds or within breed populations is another route to explore.

In the end, it simply may be necessary for us to populate our wetter pastures with other animals who can handle them better. The good news about all the warmth and rain is that we now often have pasture much longer than was historically common – last year our pastures were green until early December and the goats didn’t really “hit the hay” hard until then. This year we’ve had palatable pasture for them to the beginning of January. While it would be foolish to count on this, grazing longer is good for us.

For perennials species, one necessary adaptive strategy may have to be choosing plants that can tolerate more extreme temperatures – even though generally things seem to be getting slightly warmer here. The reason is that the fairly consistent snowcover that the region was once able to count on insulating perennial plantings is often absent, or is melted off in warm spells long before cold weather disappears – ironically as it gets warmer, we may need more cold-tolerant plantings.

Other areas may need more drought tolerance, to shift more of their plantings to cooler seasons, may need to adapt to more heat or more snow cover. And of course, we shouldn’t count on any patterns being perpetual – the regional projections of the GISS for the Northeast suggest that we may get wetter for a while as warmer air picks up more moisture from no-longer-frozen seas in the north, but but that after 2025, we may find that things get dryer and warmer – necessitating longer term shifts of new kinds.

This makes long term thinking difficult – do I push to plant sugar maples that are adapted to sugar production in warmer places than this, so that we won’t see sugar maples disappear from our landscape as the region warms? Or should I wait and see what the patterns are? Do I want to risk introducing new varieties of plants that are kept in check by cold now, but may be more troublesome in the future? Fundamentally, our focus may have to shift many, many times in the coming decades.

Meanwhile, we’re kept busy keeping warm on a cold day – chopping and hauling wood, making soup and bread, playing with the kids, petting the dogs, snuggling up with a cat on our laps. It feels like winter has set in for good – but of course, that’s an illusion – I got out the ice skates only to see that the forecast suggests 42 and rainy on Saturday. So on with the weird season!

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Claire
    January 4, 2012

    I watch weather too. One of the most noticeable changes here (St. Louis, MO metro area) is the rise in the winter minimum temperature. When I first moved here, every winter saw several days with an official low below 0F and most winters saw at least one day with a minimum temp under -10F. But now we haven’t seen an official winter low below 0F since 1999. It’s as if we’ve moved a whole zone south.

    I’ve also noticed that while the last frost date in spring hasn’t changed significantly, the first frost date in fall seems to be coming later – not till November, where before it generally happened sometime in the last couple weeks of October. In 2010 we set a new record late first frost, nearly the end of November!

    We don’t have snow cover all winter and generally under 20″ of snow total in the average winter. If you want to research perennials that can live through zones 5-7 with no snow cover and several freeze-thaw cycles over winter, look to what perennials make it in the lower Midwest. There are a few gardening books specific to our region. It takes a tough plant to make it through our extremes, which are more extreme than yours. (One of the fun things about living in the Midwest is bragging about weather extremes.)

    Our winter is very warm this year too. We’ve yet to have an official low under 15F! I haven’t even mulched the garlic and potato onions because the soil hasn’t frozen long/deep enough to get the mulch on before it thaws again. But the long-range forecast is hinting about a cold spell around mid next week for us.

  2. #2 Risa Bear
    January 4, 2012

    Our kale was shredded by cabbage moths — in late October. We picked our last baskets of apples on Christmas Eve and some of the apple trees still have their leaves — and the leaves are green. Others have dropped their leaves all right, but are suffering bu break. Robins sing from the branches. Thousands of geese are mucking about in neighborhood pastures — I remember when they, and the robins, used to actually fly south. This is Oregon, 44th parallel. Weather’s one thing, but the goofiness in the trees and birds isn’t weather, it’s climate. Sorry if the Koch brothers don’t want to hear that, but there it is.

  3. #3 Nicole
    January 4, 2012

    The past year in Alabama, we haven’t been terribly odd, but just *early.* Spring came a good month early this year, and it’s always short. Summer came early, and then fall, although our fall has been mild although first frost was right on schedule. We should get some cold snaps in December but our first one just got here two days ago — and it’s going to be 65 this weekend. We aren’t breaking any records or out of the normal range on a day to day basis, it’s the whole *season* that’s weird.

    It’s not unusual to have some warm winter days here. And yet… my animals are shedding winter coats, the spring bulbs like daffodils and day lilies are coming up and I actually saw a redbud blooming this weekend.

    It’s too soon to tell if spring is going to be 6 weeks early this year or not. I’m perfectly happy with a longer and hotter summer, but it’s hard to plan for the coming year. Spring is so short here you have to get your peas and radishes in the ground on the right weekend or you can forget about it.

  4. #4 et
    January 4, 2012

    If you’re able a photograph of the same place every day can yield lots of info – how deep was the snow, when did the apple trees bloom, which lamb was born first etc. With a digital camera it’s cheap, easy to file and easy to date.

    Along with a weather journal tracking high, lows and events it will soon become a valuable resource. I would even go with photo before written notes, if you only can commit to one.

    Pick a spot that reveals a lot and start today.

  5. #5 dogear6
    January 4, 2012

    Here in central Virginia, last frosts have been earlier than normal and first frosts are later by nearly two weeks. The summer was lethally hot for weeks on end, burning up the garden despite the water we poured on it and the many rainsfalls we had. Right now, our winter has been mild to a fault.

    It bothers me that the weather has gotten increasingly weird and no one is much bothered by it who should be – the same thing Sharon has been preaching for a long time.

    Nancy

  6. #6 aimee
    January 4, 2012

    Hi – I visited the GISS website (fascinating!) but could not figure out how to search for regional predictions such as you mention above. Guidance? THANKS

  7. #7 sealander
    January 4, 2012

    In the 12 years I have been gardening in one place, I have noticed the first frost date also seems to be shifting. Some years I’ve had self sown tomato plants that germinate at midsummer stick around long enough to produce fruit. I’m also seeing more insect pest species that are normally found in warmer climates. However our weather here in coastal NZ is very much affected by the El Niño/La Niña cycles which last for years so it can be difficult to see a long term trend.

  8. #8 Neil Craiog
    January 5, 2012

    I believed that when there was hilarity about Obama having to hurry home to from the Copenhagen warming conference because the entire east coast was being snowed in a number of alarmists said that it didn’t count because this was just weather not climate.

    Clearly this was a hallucination if a little minor variation in your back yard is climate.

  9. #9 Karen
    January 5, 2012

    Here in CT we’ve been getting an early warm or even hot spell in spring, followed by a cool wet period during what I grew up as thinking of as planting time. It’s making direct seeding and transplanting a bit interesting. Pumpkin/winter squashes have been very tough if that is bookended with a cool wet period in fall.

    We’ve been getting more lake effect snow making it to CT. It’s nothing like western NY or PA snowfalls to be sure :). Still, a noticeable change with more flurries and for want of a term, flurry squalls.

    Our ticks are now active well into winter and early in the spring. Friends in NH have seen their first local ticks in the past couple of years. I have seen mosquitos in my yard during winter months. Friends who do wildlife rescue are getting more “out of season” calls.

    While I’ve seen early budding of trees mentioned, I’ve not seen much about trees keeping their leaves later in the season. Some towns here do leaf collection, and recently more trees have their leaves past the scheduled pick-ups. The problem with late leaf drop might seem trivial at first glance, but leaves on trees with our typical wet early snowfalls can cause a lot of broken limbs. If the ground is very wet, and there are a lot of leaves and snow as happened at Halloween of this year, whole trees may be downed. While our power company exacerbated the problems with getting electricity back up, the amount of damage to trees from that snowstorm really was staggering.

  10. #10 Lisa in MN
    January 5, 2012

    Here in southern Minnesota, it seems we may be skipping winter. Today, I left the house at noon and forgot to put on a coat – or even a jacket. Today. The first week in January. I could only shake my head as I headed back to the porch for a light fall jacket for use later this evening. Our community garden used to open May 1st and frost-free was generally around mid-month. Many old-timers wouldn’t even dream of actually putting out plants until the end of May. Not so these days. Our community garden opens in mid-April now to accomodate earlier planting schedules. And as Sharon says, we’ve got to adapt to wackier weather as a “norm” of sorts. I succession plant crops to hedge against all kinds of weather unpredictability.

  11. #11 Doug Day
    January 6, 2012

    Here at Spring Bay Farm, in the Illinois River valley north of Peoria, we had temps. today in the mid 50′s. Like you I measure temps based on cleaning out the coop which I did the last day of December. I mulched the garlic with leaves late in November but because of the unstable weather they have all blown off in past week. We had over 30 days last summer of + 90 degree temps. As Kipling said “Carry on!”

  12. #12 Jason
    January 6, 2012

    “Clearly this was a hallucination if a little minor variation in your back yard is climate.” -Neil Craig

    “Now weather is complicated and climate is complicated and you will note that I make no claims about what has or hasn’t influenced things.” -Sharon Astyk

    Read, Neil. Comprehension may be beyond you, but that statement should have been fairly clear even to you.

  13. #13 polypus74
    January 6, 2012

    Sharon, the first thing that came to my mind regarding your parasite problem is rotation. You could go a couple years with a light stock of mixed fowl (ducks love slugs best), ensuring that vegetation has a chance to grow out, and then sicking the goats on it; rinse and repeat. just a thought.

  14. #14 KF
    January 6, 2012

    Hi Sharon – what kind of cows are you using in your rotation? Do you own them or are you borrowing/leasing from neighbors? I hadn’t seen you discuss cows on your farm before and am just curious what kind of rotations you have planned.

    We acquired a breeding pair of Dexters last fall (mostly for milk and to produce our own beef) and I’m still getting a handle on how to manage pasture rotations with the cows/sheep/ducks/chickens for optimal forage and minimal parasite load. Salatin has good descriptions of his rotations at Polyface, but it’s a far different thing to plan paddock rotations in 500 acres than on 2 acres…

  15. #15 C.
    January 6, 2012

    Here in what is formerly known as Minnesnowda where this is the winter that failed to arrive.

    Trust me, a bit of snow here and and 10 degree weather there is NOT winter in these parts unless it’s a week of 5 degree weather and a month of 23 degree weather. And I’m afraid for my fruit trees.

  16. #16 NC
    January 8, 2012

    Obviously you will now wish to explain what the article was baout then Jason.

    Or not as the case may be.

  17. #17 Greenpa
    January 9, 2012

    “(our wood cookstove doesn’t hold a fire overnight…”

    ooo, time for a new cookstove. I know; you can’t afford it; but truly it’s the other way; maybe you can’t afford not to. One of the reasons my own blog has been quiet; we just put one in. I’m sure I’ll be blogging about it eventually, we’re on day 3 of operations.

    Old one had corroded out, was leaking smoke. New one is built with stainless steel in those parts.

    Airtight. Truly. Not only holds fire, but keeps the house warm overnight. And stoking it- is a tiny fraction of the work. We’re amazed.

  18. #18 GrainneDhu
    January 10, 2012

    I am 54 and have lived within 60 miles of Iowa City, Iowa all my life.

    When I was a child, the Iowa River froze solid every year. The river flows right through the middle of the University of Iowa campus, so students would shortcut by walking on the ice rather than walking to one of the three bridges that span the river on or near campus. The river would be frozen solid enough to walk safely on sometime in November and stay that way until March.

    The river hasn’t frozen solid enough to walk on in Iowa City in over 20 years.

    I’ve visited St Louis, Missouri, many times over the years, in every season. The rule of thumb in the winter was that the temperature usually rose one degree F for every 10 miles south we drove.

    What I see now is that Iowa City now has weather that closely resembles the weather in St Louis.

    On a tangent: geese are herbivores. Plus, they bite. Hard.

    Ducks are omnivores and they love things like slugs and snails. While ducks can bite, they are usually more tolerant than geese and they don’t bite as hard (or do the head twist thing while biting that geese do).

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