Rainy, cold spring delays asparagus season

  • John Hoffman of the Wilder Brook Farm in Charlemont is harvesting asparagus and rhubarb. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • John Hoffman holds asparagus he harvested at his Charlemont Farm. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • A stalk of asparagus at the Wilder Brook Farm in Charlemont. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Daniel Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm in Gill with a bunch of asparagus. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Daniel Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm in Gill is rolling in rhubarb this time of year. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Fresh asparagus at the Upinngil Farm Store in Gill. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Clifford Hatch with fresh asparagus at the Upinngil Farm Store in Gill. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Clifford Hatch with fresh asparagus at the Upinngil Farm in Gill. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 5/24/2019 11:42:06 PM

Nearly overnight, dozens of handmade “asparagus” signs have appeared outside farm stands along Franklin County streets, a sure sign the growing season is upon us. However, this year, the growing season, which begins with asparagus, took its time to arrive due to an unseasonably wet, cold spring.

The slow start is not an anomaly, but the result of increasingly erratic weather caused by global warming. As the climate becomes less predictable, with heavier rainstorms and periods of drought, growing seasons and weather patterns that farmers have come to rely on remain up in the air.

Helena Farrell, land use and natural resources planner at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, said that an increasingly unpredictable climate can have a negative impact on farmers. The region’s “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall are becoming less distinct, with the climate jumping from “extreme cold to extreme heat,” she said, making it more difficult to grow crops.

“The more unpredictable the season is, the harder it is to have a successful harvest,” Farrell said. “Not knowing makes it really difficult.”

Excessive precipitation can harm crops in a number of ways, Farrell said. For example, heavy rain can drown plants, depriving them of oxygen. Extreme weather can also damage soil and cause mold, fungus or disease to grow, she said.

At Upinngil Farm (located up in Gill, not by coincidence), Clifford Hatch said asparagus, a popular crop in Franklin County, arrived about a week late this year due to a colder, wetter spring season.

The late start to the season simply meant “the customers had to wait” to buy asparagus, he said, which Upinngil offers at its farm stand. The farm stand sells out asparagus “every day,” he said. The asparagus season is fairly short, ending in about a week.

“Asparagus is really popular in this area. We never seem to grow enough,” Hatch said.

Hatch said asparagus can be especially susceptible to weeds and disease because it is a perennial.

“It craves the water, but it can’t be sitting in it,” Hatch said.

The cold, wet start to the growing season did not only affect asparagus, Hatch said, but all his crops this year, including potatoes, melons and more.

“The cold, wet spring? It stinks,” Hatch said. “It’s just been too wet to be able to plant. You can’t go on your land when it’s nothing but mud. It ruins the soil.”

As a result of the delay, Hatch said right now he and his half-dozen workers “have to hustle.”

“We don’t have so long, so we have a lot of chores to get done,” Hatch said.

Over in Charlemont, Wilder Brook Farm’s asparagus patch also arrived a week late this year, co-owner John Hoffman said.

Hoffman said he has seen first-hand how climate change has impacted his farm. For example, he is noticing that the frost is coming several weeks later in the fall. And this spring, Hoffman used an extra half-tank of fuel to heat the greenhouse.

To mitigate the effects of global warming, Hoffman and co-owner Kate Stevens have already made some adjustments to their practices. For instance, they have improved their field’s drainage systems, and intend to “do more around irrigation” to mitigate heavy rains and ward off weeds and mold.

“Where it’s going to be problematic, I think potentially is around rain,” Hoffman said. “What we want, what we need, is interspersed rain. To get four inches of rain one week that doesn’t mean that – OK, now I’m good for the next four weeks. No, you have to get it the next week.”

The warmer weather has also led to the introduction of new insects. Hoffman said he has seen a new fly that lays eggs in blueberries and can ruin the crop.

To combat unpredictable weather, some farmers are using shelters like green or hoop houses to shield their crops. Daniel Botkin, the owner of Laughing Dog Farm in Gill, says he is a proponent of “hoop houses,” which consists of a tarp sheltering his gardens and enabling plants to grow for longer periods.

Farrell said erecting shelters like hoop houses is a solution some farmers may consider if they haven’t already, to protect plants from heavy rain or unpredictable cold and warm spells. However, Farrell noted that shelters present their own list of environmental issues, requiring manmade watering and increasing storm-water runoff.

In the northern part of the county, Bernardston farmer Ervin Meluleni of Coyote Hill said his 100-foot asparagus field was similarly late to emerge.

“I usually can have a meal by May 1 and this year it was May 10,” Meluleni said. “It was very cold and wet.”

And while Meluleni grows “just about everything” and is not reliant on asparagus, he said many other plants including apple blossoms arrived late this year.

Meryl LaTronica, farm manager for Greenfield’s Just Roots farm, said her small asparagus patch sprung up a week late as well, among other crops.

“It’s mostly been it’s been tough to get into the fields,” LaTronica said. “The act of getting the farm going, whether it’s tilling the fields, getting the beds going or watching things grow really slowly.

She said the farm’s market offerings will be leaner this week due to the late start to the growing season.

“We’re not even sure what we’re going to bring, really,” LaTronica said.

LaTronica said she thinks about climate change “every day.” Farms cannot count on “normal” growing periods anymore, she said, and need to adjust – though when weather is unpredictable, it’s hard to know how.

“It’s hard to make changes on any broad level,” LaTronica said. “We don’t know how the trends are going to be. We don’t know if it’s going to be hotter or wetter.”

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