When John and I were fledgling farmers, an experienced grower assured us that once we had a few years under our belts, disasters wouldn’t be quite so upsetting. His point was made after telling us about a violent hailstorm that had ripped apart his hoop house full of basil, destroying all the plants inside. John and I were horrified at the news, yet Farmer Steve simply shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

I feel certain he wasn’t quite as cavalier the day it happened, but I do understand now what he was saying. There’s only so much we mere mortals can do to try to combat Mother Nature’s occasional wrath. When we fail, we have no choice but to go with the flow and either replant or move on to the next crops. We can’t afford to spend much time wallowing in depression (no matter how satisfying wallowing can sometimes be).

Steve took this sentiment a step further by commenting that he actually misses the emotion of it, the tension and worry about impending doom. Even that, I began to understand a little more as the years flew by. For one thing, as Farmer John and I have become intimate with the micro-climate of our farm (and every farm is unique) our biggest lesson has been how to deal with our valley’s extreme cold.

Just last Monday night, as a matter of fact, we faced it again. The forecast called for upper 30s around the outskirts of Austin, telling us that our farm would surely freeze. John started covering rows as the sun dipped below the horizon, and finished at 11:30 that night. At 4 a.m. he got up, went back outside and turned irrigation on the most tender crops as an added protection. As the sun rose, the temperature dipped to 27 degrees.

Like I announced on the farm’s Facebook page later that day, Farmer John was once again our hero. And there had been much at stake.

The thing is, though, while it was happening I worried not. I knew John had it under control. Yet in the early years of the farm, I would have still fretted through the night. I remember getting out of bed many a midnight to peer out the window at the stars twinkling above. Clear skies mean there’s a bitter chill out in the farm…and the chill often traveled all the way down the spine of the farm wife, as well.

I haven’t completely shaken that feeling, like Farmer Steve said I would. Truth is, although I’m generally better about it than I used to be, I haven’t reached the level of no-worries nirvana that he’s apparently achieved. Case in point: the night following Tuesday morning’s freeze.

The weather forecasters promised Tuesday night would be warmer. I didn’t believe them. While John snored away, exhausted after having had so little sleep the previous night, I laid awake. All I could think about were the warm-weather crops that had been uncovered that afternoon.

Every single tomato plant was exposed to the elements, including all the recently-planted rows that will constitute our main summer crop. Not to mention the rows of potatoes, green beans and tender chard out in the fields, plus the two hoop houses – both of them left open at the ends – filled with peppers and tomatoes loaded with fruit.

As much as I tried to convince myself everything was okay, as much as I told myself John would be up at 5:30 in the morning to assess the situation, sleep was not in my immediate future. And even when I was finally able to almost quit focusing on the possibility of another freeze, there was no stopping the worry machine completely. Instead, I began fixating on what was happening because of the heat.

This spring it’s too hot, too early. As do all Central Texas farmers, we try to push the seasons to the limit. Kale? Broccoli? Cabbage and spinach? Those are some of the crops that prefer cool weather, ones that grow the happiest in the fall. But because our spring seasons here are sometimes gentle enough for Mother Nature to allow it, it can be possible to have big success with cool-loving crops. Last spring was one of those seasons.

Heck, in spring 2010 we had kale left over from the previous fall that went to flower as we harvested a new crop of kale that was virtually insect-free. This year, however, harlequin bugs began their rampage as soon as we stuck the tiny kale, kohlrabi and cabbage starts in the ground, necessitating immediate cover.

While row covers deter harlequins, this spring’s hot, dry winds blow flying aphids underneath the billowing fabric where they reproduce by the bajillions (and yes, there are lots of lady bugs on the farm…but never enough to handle such apocalyptic numbers). And it’s not only the kale that’s falling victim. Many of the cool-weather crops are suffering.

Now, that’s not to say there are no successes this spring. Some things are doing beautifully, like the snow peas. We’ll be harvesting them in earnest this week.

Still, there’s no reassuring a worrywart like me, especially when it’s pitch dark. As I laid awake Tuesday night, certain it was freezing outside, I thought back to what Farmer Steve said those years ago about not caring so much about loss, and it occurred to me the difference between his farm experience and ours. Steve has always sold mostly wholesale, to grocery stores. When he has a crop failure it hurts his farm’s bottom line economically, like it does for all farmers, yet he doesn’t have a one-on-one relationship with the people who buy his produce. We, on the other hand, look our customers in the eyes twice a week and sometimes have to explain why we might not have exactly what they want.

And believe me, we so very much want to have what the customers want. Even more than the customers do.

At 5:15 Wednesday morning, shortly before John’s alarm was set to go off, I was fed up with agonizing over the possibility of a freeze. I got out of bed, put on my glasses and stumbled through the darkness to the kitchen to look at the remote thermometer. It read 55 degrees. Turns out I’d had no reason to fret, and had lost all those hours of sleep for naught.

Next time I see Farmer Steve, I need to tell him he’s not missing anything.

* * *
Even though we’re losing some of the earlier leafy crops to the heat, new things are coming along every day. We’ll have lots of great stuff for the farm stand this Wednesday (and I’m sure not going to lose any sleep over that)! Here’s what we’ll be bringing:

Sweet white turnips; pints of snow peas; garlic scapes; lettuce mix; Euro salad mix (lettuces, chicories, arugula, cress, and more); beautiful head lettuces — green Butterhead, red Butterhead, Romaine and Red Leaf; bunches of Asian mustard greens; kohlrabi; bunches of chard; as many bunches of Dinosaur kale as we can wrestle away from the aphids; spring onions; bags of arugula; bunches of cilantro; some spinach; some bulk radishes w/o tops; the first of the summer squashes (don’t know yet whether we’ll have a lot, or not so much, but it’s a start!) – yellow squash, zucchini, Zephyr & our yummy new ‘Cousa’ type squash; plus anything else we might find ready for harvest.

Jo Dwyer
Angel Valley Organic Farm
Farm stands:
Saturdays 9:00-1:00 in Jonestown on FM 1431 at the blinking yellow light; and
Wednesdays 10:00-2:00 in NW Austin at the Asian American Center, 11713 Jollyville Road (1-1/2 blocks north of the intersection of Jollyville and Duval)