Warm weather creates uncertain season for gardeners, farmers

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 | 9:30 p.m. CDT; updated 9:36 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 21, 2012

COLUMBIA — At Sandy Creek Farm near Franklin, Ronda and Randy Thiessen's peach, apple and cherry trees are blooming about two weeks earlier than usual.

Reports from other orchards are similar, Caroline Todd, director of Columbia Farmers' Market, and Bryce Oates, co-owner of Root Cellar, said. They have heard that some trees have already started setting fruit.

"If there's no freeze, there could be peaches in June," Todd said. "It's super unusual."

Kris Sanders, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said it is the earliest he can remember plants blooming.

The Thiessens might harvest their cherries in April instead of May. Market vendors have told Todd that crops might arrive six weeks early. Two farmers mentioned to her that they have recently planted warm-season crops like green beans and sweet corn.

An unseasonably warm winter and early spring have allowed many farmers to plant crops weeks before their traditional planting date. Herman Gieringer, a market vendor, said he planted peas, onions, potatoes, lettuce, spinach, beets and kale the last week of February. Last year he put the seeds in the ground in mid-March.

"The winter was so mild — no moisture, no snow — so I wanted to get what I could early," Gieringer said.

The National Weather Service reports that consistently high temperatures in March have already broken three records: 85 degrees on March 14, breaking a record of 82 set in 1971; 81 degrees on March 15, topping the 79-degree record from 1914; and 81 degrees on March 19, breaking the record of 80 degrees from 1907.

So far this month, the average temperature is 14.5 degrees higher than usual — 57.1 degrees instead of 44.6 degrees.

There is no sign of cold weather ahead, Sanders said. He predicts that the end of the month will see highs around 70 degrees and lows around 40 degrees. Several days next week could reach the 80s, with lows in the mid-50s.

The last freeze in Columbia was 32 degrees on March 10. The last hard freeze was March 5, when the temperature dropped to 22.

Jeremy Saurage of Deep Mud Farm in Auxvasse said he called local restaurants this week to sell salad greens planted in October that sprouted and grew over the winter.

Oates said Root Cellar is getting cool-season crops about a month early, and spinach planted outside has already made its appearance at the Columbia Farmers' Market, Todd said. The market moves outside Saturday for the first time this year.

This early growing season will give farmers an advantage that Saurage calls "market re-entry." The earlier a farmer can get the widest variety of produce to a market, the better chance of developing a rapport with clients.

He usually has a disadvantage, he said, because his soil drains poorly. Typically, he doesn't sow seeds until April.

A frost should not harm farmers' chances of bringing produce to the market because they have planted mostly hardy, cool-season vegetables like broccoli, spinach and lettuce. 

Many recall the Easter freeze of 2007, when the weather in March was similar to this season. Temperatures were 8.8 degrees above the normal average, allowing plants to pollinate and bloom. 

Suddenly on April 4, the temperature fell to 28 degrees. The next five days were relentless, as the temperature lingered at 26 degrees and below.

The freeze lasted until April 9, and farmers were devastated. Sanders called the numbers "astounding." Nearly everything in bloom died, with a $2 billion loss in the agriculture industry throughout central and southern U.S.

There is some anxiety that this year's weather patterns could have the same consequences, with catastrophic effects for crops. Sanders said it’s hard to say.

Deep freezes are difficult to predict, given that the threat of frost can last into April. The date when any danger of a frost is over is April 10, a date that moved ahead after the USDA adjusted the nation's plant hardiness zones. 

Still, Sanders said, "We probably have a better chance of seeing above-normal temperatures than below-normal temperatures."

Andrew Herndon, a landscape designer at Rost Landscaping west of Columbia, said he isn't concerned about a freeze.

"The warm weather seems like it’s here to stay," he said. "I guess that a freeze could happen, but I’m encouraged that it won’t."

He added that plants are coming in a month and a half in advance, which is good for landscaping. His favorite part of the unseasonably warm weather is the blooming, he said.

"The plants are looking gorgeous. Every day in the nursery is getting more and more beautiful.”

An additional concern is early onset of pests, but Bruce Barrett, a professor of entomology at MU, said, "The idea that more insects die off with a colder and harsher winter is not fully understood."

Warm weather affects the time insects emerge, he said. Insects will become active when their host plants do.

Warmer temperatures in the spring and fall might lead to an extra generation of insects but not more insects in a single generation.

"I don't think people need to worry that they're going to be overrun with insects," Barrett said.

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Mark Foecking March 22, 2012 | 7:39 a.m.

I don't buy April 10 for the last freeze date. 2007 showed us what can happen, and with increased energy in the atmosphere due to climate change, a fat Alberta clipper can come through pretty much any time in April.

Farmers are always gamblers. Good luck to them.


(Report Comment)
Elizabeth Laubach April 4, 2012 | 2:10 p.m.

Hello, this is Elizabeth Laubach, one of the reporters who worked on this story. I would like to thank you for commenting- we appreciate feedback on our stories very much.

I tracked down some information about the frost free date, I've found that it is quite ambiguous, as it is configured by averaging past climate patterns. The way we configured April 10 is explained in the article, but I have discovered that the National Climatic Data Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, gives a total of nine dates when one can last expect a frost. There are categories of the probability level of a frost and the threshold, or temperature, of the frost. In the Columbia regional area, April 10 is the last date one can have a 50% chance of having a 32 degree frost.

Here's the link where I found this information. Just follow this link, then find the state that one is wishing to plant in, and a pdf file will download.

Elizabeth Laubach,
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)

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