This week’s post isn’t going to be pretty. It’s not filled with photos of beautiful flowers, harvested vegetables, or even cute wildlife (well, maybe a few). But it will give an unedited glimpse into the reality of being a grower during climate change. As the climate crisis worsens, we are seeing natural disasters occur more frequently and more globally. There have been a record number of floods, heat waves and droughts, hurricanes and tornados, and wildfires this summer alone. Here in the Hudson Valley of NY, we’ve experienced all these phenomenon this season for the first time since I can remember. A tornado in July dropped golf-ball-sized hail, a heat wave and drought through July and August led to water shortages, a wildfire raged in Minnewaska State Park a mere half hour south of us, and after weeks of no rain, we are currently under a flood watch. These natural phenomena rarely happen where we live, yet we’ve experienced them all in just a few short months.
As a grower, navigating these extreme climate conditions can be very challenging. My heart aches for the farmers trying to make a living by growing the food we depend on, only to lose their crops due to weather extremes. I can’t imagine the challenges they’ve faced growing on such a large scale. I can only share my experience this season on our micro flower farm.
Our biggest challenge this growing season has been the unrelenting heat and drought. Long spans of high temperatures and lack of rain quickly led to drought conditions early in the season. In our area, the National Weather Service reported that we had experienced a 7-inch deficit in rainfall compared to last year. In early August, our town declared a drought emergency and water advisory. Water restrictions followed as residents were strongly urged to conserve water or face fines. We have been saving water from tasks such as rinsing dishes and cooking to water the plants. When our rainwater collection system ran dry, I often had to make tough decisions about which plants to water. Most plants require an inch of water per week to thrive, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to provide those needs. It was barely enough to saturate the soil on those few occasions when we got rain in August.
As the drought dragged on, I started to see its impact on the plants, even the hardy perennials that are typically drought tolerant. The blueberries on the bushes began to wither and fall off, the leaves of plants burned in the intense sun and faded, and the grass turned brown and dry. In addition, the drought affected our fruit harvests as we came away with thirty pounds fewer blueberries than last year, and our blackberry and raspberry crops are virtually nonexistent.
I’ve also noticed how much the lack of water affects wildlife. The chipmunk and bird pressure on our edible crops is unprecedented this year. We removed the netting on the blueberry bushes early this season so the birds could get some liquid from the withering fruit. They picked the bushes clean within days. And the groundhogs were so desperate for water that they climbed our tomato cages to get at the fruit and damaged all our plants, leaving broken branches and stripped leaves. The tomato plants sustained so much damage that they had to be removed, cutting the season short. Groundhogs also ate all the pumpkins, a crop they hadn’t touched here in the past. In addition, a black bear and her cubs have ventured into our neighborhood looking for food. I don’t blame all these animals for doing what they can to survive in these conditions. If I lose some crops that are already struggling to thirsty wildlife, then so be it.
We’ve also noticed the spread of some powdery mildew on some of our crops. On those rare occasions when we got a sprinkling of rain, the high humidity that followed provided the perfect conditions for this fungal disease. While the drought conditions have caused a lot of anxiety around here, in our quest to see the silver lining, we have noticed that there have been a few upsides. This season, less weed pressure has saved countless hours of labor, and the lack of mosquitoes has made harvesting in the early mornings much more enjoyable. And somehow, through all these climate challenges, we have still managed to cultivate beauty through our flowers here on the farm.
As I write this, we are finally getting the rain we desperately need. And we are getting A LOT. But, in what scientists call climate whiplash, we see our area go from one extreme weather to another. What was a drought merely 48 hours ago is now a flood watch, which can happen when soil is so dry and hardened from lack of rain that it has trouble absorbing water. But at least our rain barrels will again be full to help meet whatever other climate challenges Mother Nature has in store for us this season.
And there you have it—the unedited truth about growing in extreme climate conditions. I’m sorry that it’s not pretty. I’m learning quickly that farming is hard and that many factors are out of your control. Yet, farmers must be flexible and determined to persevere. The life of a flower farmer is often portrayed as angelic, people who merely play with flowers all day. But that is not the case. Flower farmers work hard for those beautiful bouquets. We get dirty, sunburned, bitten by bugs, and exhausted. We worry about pests and wildlife, and weather. Of course, we love our plants and enjoy sharing them with the world. And, as much as I’ve learned that being a flower farmer is tough, I’ve also found that I love it. Despite all the challenges, hard work, and worry, it is so much fun when we finally get to play with flowers. And sharing our flowers with others, well, that’s even better.