What does all the April snow mean for our farm?

2012 was very dry in Colorado and we used up a lot of the water that was stored in the state’s reservoirs. The 2013 farm season started out looking pretty dire in March. We hadn’t gotten much snow to replenish our water supply. At the end of March the South Platte snowpack (where we get some of our irrigation water) was at 71% of normal. But then we had record-setting snow in April. By the end of April the snowpack had increased to 94% of normal. The snowpack is even higher with the May 1 snowstorm.

Rhubarb plants peaking though the snow.

Rhubarb plants peaking though the snow.

What does all this snow and cold weather mean for our farm? There are some good things, some bad things, and some uncertainties.

The April snow has been a huge boost to our snowpack. Things look very good in terms of irrigation water availability for the summer. It is hard to express what a big deal this is for farms all over Boulder County and beyond.

It got down to 9°F in mid-April. This is the coldest it has been during April in the 10 years that we have been farming. The leaves of our garlic got singed by the cold. Garlic is very hardy and we’ve never seen this before. Our rhubarb also got killed back in April. The leaves have started to grow again, but the rhubarb will be a little behind.

Our garlic is recovering from cold April temps.

Our garlic is recovering from cold April temps.

The snow also helped to protect some of our crops. We had a lot of things like spinach, lettuce, peas, and fava beans that we planted in March. The snow made a nice blanket to protect these crops from that 9° night in April. The plants probably would have suffered significant damage without the snow blanket to protect them.

The snow (along with row cover) provides a nice blanket for spinach.

The snow (along with row cover) provides a nice blanket for spinach.

The downside is that the snow, cold weather, and moisture have delayed our growing season substantially. We have some crops planted, but they haven’t really been growing while buried under snow or sitting at temperatures in the 30s. On wet days we can’t do any work in our fields. Our plowing and planting have been delayed by weeks. We just can’t plant into snow or mud. We would normally have 4 successions of spring crops planted by this time of year. These are crops like lettuce, arugula, spinach, radishes, turnips, etc. This year we only have 2 successions planted as of the beginning of May. We had 10 acres planted by this time last year, but now we only have 3 acres planted.

You just can't plant seeds into ankle-deep mud.

This is my boot getting sucked into the mud in one of our fields. You just can’t plant seeds into ankle-deep mud.

This spinach planted on March 15 is just putting out its first true leaves. We would normally harvest this May 1.

This spinach planted on March 15 is just putting out its first true leaves. We would normally harvest this May 1, but it will be ready closer to the end of May this year.

Our farm workers have had a lot of snow days and missed working for most of April. It’s nice to have a snow day here and there, but these people are counting on their paychecks and I know it has been difficult financially. And the days the did get to work in April weren’t fun. The back-to-back snow storms made working conditions cold, wet, and muddy.

Harvesting spinach through snow is a cold, wet, messy job.

Harvesting spinach through snow is a cold, wet, messy job.

All that work we didn’t get to do in April didn’t just go away. It still needs to happen, so now we have 2 months’ worth of work to do in May. I keep telling our crew that they are in for a crazy few weeks!

Our sales at the farmers’ market are down by about 30% so far this season because we don’t have much to sell. We would usually have all kinds of crops by the beginning of May: spinach, lettuce, arugula, kale, mustard greens, green garlic, walking onions, radishes, turnips, and lots more. But so far this year we’ve pretty much just had over-wintered spinach.

By the last full week in April we thought we were in the clear. But then we got almost a foot of snow on May 1! We were a bit worried about some of the more tender crops that we had already planted. I was very happy on May 2 when I went out to our hoop house and saw that the tomato plants in there survived.

We were lucky that our tomato plants in the hoop house didn't freeze.

We were lucky that our tomato plants in the hoop house didn’t freeze.

And I almost couldn’t believe it when I checked our walls o’ water on May 2. We put out several hundred tomato plants on April 26. I thought for sure that they would have frozen in the May 1 storm. But they were toasty and happy when I peeked inside!

We plant tomatoes in several hundred walls o' water in April.

We plant tomatoes in several hundred walls o’ water in April.

I thought for sure our tomato plants would freeze in our walls o' water!

I thought for sure our tomato plants would freeze during the May 1 storm in our walls o’ water!

We would normally have things like our kale and chard transplants in the ground. And they would be almost ready to harvest. But we are just finally getting them planted this week. We planted things like fava beans, peas, and beets a few months ago. Fortunately they germinated and started growing, but then they sort of went into hibernation in April and just sat there. They are growing again, but they are now about a month behind.

We are worried about having killing frosts later than usual. The average date of the last frost in Boulder is May 15. But, we have been setting record lows and we are worried this trend might continue. I don’t know if this fear is rational or not. But the cold weather in April has us worried about cold weather in May.

So far this week is off to a good start. We have several thousand transplants to get in the ground. Cool, cloudy weather is perfect for transplanting as it reduces transplant shock. If the weather cooperates and we can get back on schedule in May, we should catch up to a normal growing season in June. Keep your fingers crossed!

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