A look back at 2018:Climate change leaves its mark

The growing season is finished here at Farmer John’s, and overall it was a good year — several crops had record-breaking production.  But I also had more than the usual number of crop failures, some of them with crops that have been reliable staples in past years — like broccolini. squash, corn, and cucumbers. As I look back at the records I keep, there’s a theme that passes through all of it — the climate is really out of whack this year.

I’d call that climate change, and it’s not just affecting farmers. I also fish in the ocean off Plum Island (Massachusetts) during the summer and fall, where I saw some dramatic changes in water temperatures and fish species. The water was unusually warm, bringing in fish species that normally don’t venture north of Buzzard’s Bay — some 80 miles south of here.

In the garden, I’ve never seen a year of such extremes in the 30 years that I’ve been growing vegetables. Three particular extremes worked together to put a tremendous amount of stress on plants — an unusually cold spring, followed by an unusually hot and humid midsummer that coincided with an unusually wet few weeks.

The cold spring made it difficult to grow seedlings. I usually start them indoors in March and April, and sell my excess seedlings on my farmstand in May. But it was just too cold for many seeds to properly germinate, and that reduced my seedling count. As a result, I had very few seedlings to sell at the farmstand, and barely enough to plant in the garden.

The farmstand in mid August. Lots of tomatoes and ground cherries, but not much else.

Mother Nature knocks off an invasive species

June and July produced more seasonal weather, and that helped many seedlings revive and kicked the garden into high gear. I also had another unexpected bonus — the blueberry crop smashed all previous records. In 5 growing seasons, my prior record was 30 quarts — this year I hit 140 quarts. Unbelievable.

So what happened? I have 5 very large bushes that were planted in the 1930s, each containing dozens of fruiting canes. Over the prior 3 years they barely produced a single berry, due to largescale infestations by an invasive European insect called the winter moth. If you are a frequent reader of my blogs, you know about my ongoing war with these nasty bugs. In their peak year, 2016, there were hundreds of thousands of them — they chewed through many neighborhood trees and devastated the blueberry crop. They were spreading rapidly through the neighborhood and seemed to be unstoppable.

Something happened to them during the winter of 2017-2018. My speculation is that the ground froze in December, right around the time that they hatch from ground, mate and lay eggs (their December emergence is the reason they are called winter moths). I think they were unable to emerge due to the frozen ground, and died off almost completely. There are still a few of them left — you see them flittering around outdoor lights at night — but that’s nothing compared to the swarms that emerged in 205-2017.

Newly-planted strawberry plants thrived this year. I’m looking forward to a big crop in 2019.

Hot, humid, too wet

In August, what looked like a solid rebound in the garden turned mushy. First we were hit with unusually high temperatures and humidity. Then the rains came. This was the perfect formula for diseases and damaging fungi to spread. It also led to a population explosion in the pest insect department. Since I am an organic farmer, it is difficult to stop the spread once it takes root. As a result, several crops were wiped out, and my tomato yield was far below its usual bounty.

Once the berry crops ended, there was little left to sell on the farmstand. Then the frost came early — around mid October, which is 2 weeks earlier than our normal killing frost.

Despite all these problems, it was a very productive year at the farmstand, thanks to the berries. I’ve learned that many of my customers love berries, especially organic (and cheap) berries. So that will be a major component of next year’s farmstand. I also expanded my berry crop in 2018 — I planted a few hundred strawberries, and I expect I’ll have a very large crop for sale in June 2019 to complement the blueberries and raspberries I already have in abundance. I also have what looks like a promising crop of blackberry canes, so hopefully I’ll be offering blackberries in 2019 on the stand.

I’ve begun preparing the vegetable garden for the 2019 season, and in January I’ll post an update on what I’ll be offering. There will be some interesting new vegetables.

So 2018 is in the record books. I look forward to 2019.

John Macone is the owner of Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a small scale organic farm in Amesbury, Massachusetts.