The weather forecasters predicted 33 degrees for a nighttime low. They issued a “frost advisory” indicating that there would likely be areas of frost, but not necessarily widespread frost…but AREAS. So, we prepared as best we could, covering as many rows of flowering strawberries as we had covers for, and as all farmers do, tried to think positively about the night ahead. I told myself weathermen and women are often wrong. They can predict rain for days with us seeing nary a drop of the wet stuff in our rain gauge. So I went to bed, set the alarm for 6 am (peak frost time) and that was that.
And then morning came… bright, sunny and beautiful for most non-farmers in the world… but then I looked down and there it was. Not a patchy scratching of white on the ground, no… complete white… like a stray snow shower had passed us by while we slept. Still, I tried to think positive… maybe it looks worse than it is… maybe the strawberries somehow made it through unscathed. I donned my winter hat and boots and jacket, still keeping my pj’s on, boarded the Kubota, and off I went. My first stop was the trusty thermometer that lives on the outside of our machine shed. I stopped. No. That couldn’t be right. 27 degrees! That had to be wrong. It was an old thermometer after all. Maybe it had gone haywire in the night. But, it wasn’t wrong.
The closer I got to the strawberries, the more realization set in. This was no sketchy areas of frost. This was a hard frost, a 27 degree-weathermen-and-women-didn’t-get-it-right frost. A thick layer of white lay atop the row covers, flower buds everywhere drooped. I could no longer tell myself otherwise… there would be serious loss in the strawberries this year. Oh life would certainly go on, but with not nearly as many strawberries as there was yesterday.
Now it would be a waiting game. I knew that strawberry flowers were good to 30 degrees and buds (depending on their stage of development) could survive temperatures between 22-27 degrees. But, if our machine shed thermometer was correct, 27 degrees was right at the edge of that. We may actually lose much more than just the flowers as I originally thought possible. Only time would tell.
Of course, I didn’t dare touch the row covers. After all they were only supposed to give us “several” degrees of additional warmth. It is entirely possible that even the plants underneath them wouldn’t survive 27 degrees, 5 degrees below freezing. As the sun warmed the earth and the frost layer dissipated, we would find out what was beneath. Ironically, this would be the first year we had any covers at all. You see covers are fairly expensive and often small farmers like ourselves do not have extra funds to purchase covers… but for some reason I took the opportunity last Fall to convince my husband to order as many covers as would fit into our farm budget. The plan was to build up the supply as we could. Little did we know they would be needed so soon after their arrival.
With so many thoughts in my head, I boarded the Kubota once again to head back to the house to make breakfast for my family and then it hit me… the grapes. The grapes were just unfurling their leaves and buds were bursting. The stage they were in could typically handle temperatures of 27-28 degrees. We were at 27 degrees! So on my way back to the house I drove slowly through the vineyard, not knowing exactly what I should be looking for. After all, this is only our sixth year of fruit farming and never before have we faced this hard of a frost in late spring. Instinct told me to feel the new leaves and buds… everything still felt normal… no brittleness or drooping, so it was still possible to stay positive on the grape front. Time and sunshine would let us know more, but for now the grapes seemed to be okay.
The moment I got inside, the writer in me knew that I needed to write this morning’s frosty adventures down so that I could more fully process what was happening. In the grander scheme of things, everything really is fine. There will be less fruit this season, but my family is still healthy and happy and although farming is my job and income, it is not our family’s only income. When we bought this farm my husband wisely planned for us not to depend on any of our farm income to pay our monthly bills. He would keep his day job as an engineer and farm income would be used for nonessential items. He’s a smart guy, that husband of mine. Growing up on a farm had taught him well. When it comes to farming, nothing is guaranteed.
The harder part though, as is so often the case in farming, is the realization that all the hard work, time and energy put into the caring for the plants could all be gone in just one night. Whether it be a terrible rain storm, drought, wind, hail, frost… it’s all the same to farmers, something we cannot control, predict or plan for entirely. It is what it is. The strength comes in the way we react to the situations we are given.
And here is where I shall leave the story for now… The time is just 7:13 am. Frost still covers the fields and my family is starting to rise from their slumber. I feel frustrated and sad and overwhelmed by the challenge of the weather. And yet this is where I find the most beautiful moment of the morning. My eight year old is the first to wake. He has been helping the last several days with row covering and uncovering and he knows what white on the ground at this time of the year means. He lives this farmer life even at the age of 8, and he is on the payroll. So I wonder how he will react.
He looks thoughtfully out the window and then he asks, “Mom, how much do row covers cost?” …. “About $65-70 a piece,” I say.
And after just a moment’s thought he says, “I think I will use some of my money to buy some more row covers, Mom, because I like strawberries a lot and I want to help.” And that was it. All the mornings challenges in that one moment meant absolutely nothing. When push comes to shove, my eight year old knew that we stick together to solve a problem…. and that my friends, is success way beyond what three acres of strawberries can ever produce.