All the crazy weather the last three years has got me thinking a lot these days about a cropping strategy to minimize the risks associated with late frosts, early frosts, drought, extended periods of rain and so forth. This is not an exercise in alarmist rhetoric but rather a logical projection based on my own past experiences. Not wanting to draw anyone into a debate about the causes and effects of long-term global warming I will stick to the seasonal facts. More than once during recent growing seasons, my tender crops have been threatened by a late frost in early June. Equally as threatening has been the fear of an early frost in late August as I waited for my peanuts and sweet potatoes to mature for fall harvest. Numerous times I have drug my frost blankets out to the fields and covered plants as a precaution. I am not one to gamble if there is some practical safeguard I can put in place.
Aside from a mechanical approach to protecting crops, I have put a lot of thought into a more passive approach. Specific varietals which exhibit various characteristics that would help them to survive extreme weather conditions like drought or ones that would be appropriate for use in a back up plan in the event of an early crop loss due to frost or flooding.
In 1816, there occurred a global weather event referred to as “The year without a summer”. The confluence of a series of climate events (the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia and historic low solar activity combined with the final years of the Little Ice Age) plunged the northern hemisphere into a period of time punctuated with record breaking summer frosts, snowfalls and reduced sunlight. The result was major food shortages and record prices for staple crops like oats and wheat. This event was brought to my attention while researching new corn varieties to trial this summer. One particular corn variety caught my
attention, Roy Calais. The catalog description (Bountiful Gardens) stated, “Roy’s Calais…. One of the most important rediscovered heirlooms of recent years, this new England corn is so cold hardy that it survived the “year without a summer”in 1816″. This treasure of open-pollinated diversity pushed me to consider other crops that could play an important role during difficult growing seasons.
Another crop which does not mind cool weather conditions is Quinoa. Typically, Quinoa is not commonly grown in our region due to the excessive amount of rainfall we can receive in the summer and fall but, plant breeders have developed varieties like Temuko and Red Head which can tolerate rainy conditions better than traditional types. Quinoa would be a great staple crop for our area given it’s reputation as a power-house of nutrition.
Japanese Barnyard Millet is another great crop known for it’s earliness (60 days) and its ability to grow in poor soils with minimal rainfall. In some regions farmers can get 2 crops in one season. The immediate problem with millet is that in this country it is considered bird-seed and used for wildlife plots. Other parts of the world grow millet as a staple grain, so this crop would require a shift in public attitude to be seriously considered as a cash crop for human consumption.
Aside from looking to crops that can handle cold weather, rainy springs or droughts there should also be consideration given to specific, fast growing crops that can be planted after loss due to late freezes or flood conditions that can destroy the initial spring planting. Barnyard Millet would fit this category nicely, but one could also include specific varieties of dry corn and soybeans, both of which already play a major role in our local agricultural system. I had experience last spring with one such crop, Agate Soybeans. This Japanese Heirloom helped me to recover from the loss of another heirloom soybean I had planted at the end of May. After 2 weeks it became clear that the germination rate for my initial planting was way to low to justify maintaining the plot (approx. 8% of the plants germinated). I reworked the bed in mid June and replanted the Agate Soybeans on the 14th. I harvested my dry mature beans on the 9th of September. The yields for Agate are nowhere near that of some long season (100 plus days) soybean varieties but I was content to have any crop vs no crop at all.
This spring I am trialing a dent corn variety called Alberta Clipper which is a Canadian Heirloom, that can mature in just over 60 days. While, again having yields much lower than conventional varieties, I believe that the yields and quality of this corn can be greatly improved by selection and regionalization over a number of growing seasons. This last season I grew a wonderful crop of Painted Mountain dry corn which at 75 days still puts it in the running as a back-up variety in the event of a spring failure.
Aside from staples like grains and beans, there are also a number of vegetable
varieties which can perform well in less than ideal conditions and mature relatively early. The Stupice tomato, a Czechoslovakian Heirloom, can set delicious fruit in cool temperatures (60’s) and are remarkably early at only 55 days and extremely productive. Of course greens like Red Russian Kale and Tronchuda Cabbage can be both cold and heat tolerant.
These are just a few of the varieties which could be incorporated into any diverse and sustainable garden or farm plan that intentionally desires to be flexible given the extreme weather patterns we have been experiencing these last few years.