Roaring Fork Valley farmers scrambled Tuesday to prepare for the big chill
Farmers in the Roaring Fork Valley knew when they got up Tuesday it was going to be one of those days.
With a freeze warning in the forecast and crops in the ground, they had to scramble to avoid potential disaster.
“I was pretty darn nervous at the end of last week, especially since I gave all of my employees Labor Day off,” said Harper Kaufman, owner of Two Roots Farm in Emma.
She was forced to hedge her bets and partially harvest some of her crops before the ideal time — just in case a hard freeze left them rotting in the field.
Storage crops such as onions, carrots, radishes and cabbage were her biggest concern. They can handle a little frost but it’s better for temperatures to gradually fall rather than plummet. So she and her crew picked approximately 40% of many of the crops they are growing Tuesday to make sure they would be available for sale in fall and early winter.
By harvesting early, Kaufman said, you sacrifice a bit of bounty and taste because the vegetables don’t stay on the plant until full maturity. It was a gamble she had to take.
She didn’t lose any crops left in the field, thanks in part to row covers, a sort of insulating blanket. The temperature in the midvalley only dropped to about 34 degrees, with a brief period of colder temps right before dawn. It was warmer than forecast.
“Twenty-seven degrees would have been devastating,” Kaufman said.
Erin Cuseo, owner of Erin’s Acres in the Blue Creek neighborhood of the midvalley, said she and her crew spent a “labor intensive” day harvesting Tuesday when they really needed to be tending other chores.
When the forecast was shaping up with freezing temperatures, she said she asked herself, “How would be even find the time to do it? Our days are already full.”
But that’s the life of a farmer, so they adapted and picked some of the more frost-susceptible crops.
“Some of them weren’t quite ready. We had to pull them anyway,” she said.
Freshly harvested onions were drying and summer squash was curing Wednesday.
Adding to the challenge of Tuesday, Cuseo helped check on a baby water buffalo that was born at about 8 p.m. in cold and wet conditions in Old Snowmass. They had to make sure she was nursing, she said.
The baby was named Tormenta in honor of being born in a storm.
At the Blue Creek property, about one-half acre is planted with crops that are finishing. Most are “somewhat” frost tolerant. Cuseo also has tomatoes in a greenhouse that was unaffected by the cold.
“We didn’t lose any crops,” she said.
She anticipates no problem meeting demand for the three remaining weeks of summer Community Supported Agriculture program, where customers buy a share at the start of the season and receive bounty at regular intervals. Erin’s Acres also has an eight-week fall CSA.
The agriculture staff at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ Rock Bottom Ranch is accustomed to dealing with early frost. Located along the Roaring Fork River, it has a microclimate that invites cold temperatures late in the summer, said agriculture manager Alyssa Barsanti.
“Last year we had a killing frost earlier, on Aug. 28,” she said.
Therefore, they expect problems at this time of year. “Every day in September, we’ve been celebrating” the absence of frost, she said.
So it was a relief the temperature didn’t dip below 30 degrees Tuesday night. That created some frost damage and makes some plants more susceptible to future frosts, but most crops survived just fine.
“That difference in temperature can be pretty dramatic for the crops,” Barsanti said.
The crew pulled onions and placed row cover on other sensitive crops.
Another challenge was with the livestock. The youngest lambs were brought inside for protection after a rainy day and falling temperatures at night. They didn’t want the more susceptible animals staying out in the cold after getting wet.
Further upvalley at the Farm Collaborative, located on Cozy Point Ranch at the intersection of Highway 82 and Brush Creek Road, the staff was confronted with forecasts that predicted temperatures ranging from the 20s to lower 30s. That created a lot of uncertainty.
“A 20-degree freeze, there’s nothing you can do. Covering a crop isn’t going to do any good,” said Cooper Means, agriculture director for the Farm Collaborative. He also leases land from Pitkin County Open Space and Trails for farming near Lazy Glen through his company Shining Mountains Farm.
Crews at both locations worked through rain, sleet, mud and falling temperatures Tuesday to salvage susceptible crops. They pulled whole plants of beans and cabbage in hopes they would continue to mature. Nevertheless, it will affect the quantity of the harvest, he said.
The temperature didn’t fall as far as feared and snow provided insulation. But it was cold enough that there was ice on water sources.
“The greenhouse is the key to success up here,” Means said.
He admitted he was a little ticked at Mother Nature when the forecast was shaping up. But then he shook it off as just part of farming.
It’s been a challenging season, as noted in a newsletter Wednesday by Skip’s Farm to Market general manager Dalene Barton. Skip’s has a store in Basalt. She noted farmers in the region have faced late spring freezes, dry summer conditions, smoke-filled days and now an early fall freeze.
“I want to extend a huge virtual hug to all of our farmers near and far for holding it down and providing us with the best quality produce available,” Barton wrote.
Means was able to see the bright side of the frost by Wednesday afternoon. There is relief that the season is winding down after a lot of hard work through spring and summer, he said.