Home News Archive Harsh Winter Leaves Farmers Out in the Cold

Harsh Winter Leaves Farmers Out in the Cold


by Carolyn Grodinsky

March 2014, the month for starting plants in the greenhouse, was one of the coldest on record. Temperatures ranged from a low of minus 16°F to a high of 11°F, averaging almost 11 degrees lower than usual. And it wasn’t just the month of March, the entire winter of 2014 was extremely cold, with 68 days experiencing temperatures below 10°F. Local farmers felt the impacts of the 2014 winter in many ways.

Paul Betz of High Ledge Farm in Woodbury typically plants his seedling starts in March to be ready to sell on opening day of the farmers’ market. This year, Paul had to wait ten days later than normal, as his heating system couldn’t heat the greenhouse when temperatures were sub-zero. Likewise, plants at Gaylord Farm in Waitsfield are more than three weeks behind due to the very cold nights and lack of sun. Deb Gaylord noted that the delayed planting date means that some of the longer-season produce will not mature for harvest.

Chris Thompson of Owl Hill Farm in Plainfield hasn’t yet planted his early season crops for the early May and June harvests. This later planting date will create a gap between the end of his winter greens season and the time for selling the greens he would have planted by now. To counter the shortened planting season, Chris is planting all his high tunnels with fast-growing greens. He’ll harvest these greens when it’s time to plant the warm season crops. The work, typically done over several months, will be concentrated over a very short period, leading to extra-long, exhausting days. Having later greens for sale is hard on Chris financially, because the beginning of the season is when farmers need income most to buy items such as soil amendments, compost and potting soil.

Greenfield Highland Beef, as its name suggests, raises Highland cattle. These animals have lived for centuries in the rugged, remote Scottish Highlands. The extremely harsh conditions have created a breed of hardy and adaptable animals, with long hair and thick skin, well suited for cold weather. But even this hardy breed was challenged by the winter just ending. The cold temperatures and lack of sunshine reduced their normal weight gain. Cattle weren’t able to convert their hay ledge feed efficiently and grow at the same rate as they do during more typical winters. The lack of sun created serious problems, too. The Highlands normally soak up the sun, building heat in their bodies. With so few sunny days this season, they weren’t able to conserve energy and needed more feed to maintain heat. Fortunately, with the return of warmer weather and sunshine, the cattle are already less physically stressed and are beginning to fill out. Greenfield’s veterinarian observed that he had never seen such winter loss as in the dairy cattle he’s now seeing in his rounds. He noted that the cold winter also compromised the cattle’s resistance to disease and infection.

Gaylord Farm in Waitsfield raises Black Angus and Belted Galloway. Like the Highland Cattle, they required more feed over the winter to stay warm. The farm buys organic hay for its cattle and, because the animals needed extra to stay warm, hay has been in short supply—and there are still two months remaining before cattle can feed on spring’s nourishing grasses. Calving has also been difficult in the sub-freezing temperatures. The farm has lost a number of small animals, as the time to get on their feet to nurse in order to raise their blood sugar is greatly reduced with the cold. Extra staff is required to address all these issues and help more animals survive.

One silver lining of the long, cold winter was its impact on some warmer climate pests. Pests are slowly moving north, but they have not been able to establish populations in this area. Betz hasn’t seen the insects yet on his farm, or in this area, and he hopes the severity of the winter has killed the bugs and “they don’t want to come back up North.” Betz’s biggest pest concern is the squash vine borer. The moths lay their egg on the stems of the squash plants, the eggs hatch and move into the vines of the squash, and the vines collapse. Thicker vined-stemmed squash, such as butternut squash, are less susceptible than thinner ones, such as pumpkins and delicatas.  It’s a major concern for Paul, who grows many varieties of squash. He notes that if this pest harmed squash throughout New England, it would create fewer squash for the fall and winter season.

As of April 8, Betz still had between 18 inches and 2 feet of snow on High Ledge Farm, but he’s still planning to have his wide variety of vegetable starts—including lettuces, cabbage, kales, collards, broccoli, cauliflower and Asian greens—for the first Capital City Farmers’ Market on May 3. Support our farmers on opening day of the outdoor season. By then, the weather is sure to be warmer!