For six of the past eight mornings, Indiana Countians awoke to weather forecaster-imposed freeze warnings, frosty windshields and on at least one day an unprecedented mid-May accumulation of snow.
With a four-day stretch of sub-freezing sunrise temperatures and readings below 40 degrees on 11 of the 14 days so far this month, the unfavorable conditions for sowing and growing anything that springs from Mother Earth have confounded planters from backyard growers to commercial farmers.
The low temperature of 25 early last Saturday broke a record for Indiana County, according to AccuWeather.
It’s a cold stretch that defies memories to recall one so nasty at this stage of the growing season. And it’s been marked by its persistence: More than just flirting once with the critical 32-degree mark, the mercury has left more than a week of May readings more characteristic of March.
Bob Pollock, director of the Penn State Cooperative Extension for Indiana County, said the enduring cold wave only compounds other unfavorable conditions for this year’s cultivation of annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees and cash crops.
A dip into the 20s on April 17, soon after many seeds went into the ground or when buds first started to sprout, put a hurt on the early growth, he said.
“Some plants here were damaged, but out east there was variable damage to a lot of developing fruit around the state,” Pollock said. “Especially in Adams County, the peach crop and the apple crop. Peaches were out farther along, but apples were out enough, at the tail end of a warm stretch — we were 30 to 35 percent ahead of normal at the beginning of the growing season. All of a sudden we came into the colder weather.” The effect on those fruit crops, he said, could have been the kind that won’t become evident until later.
“We weren’t as far along here, but still there could have been some things out that were damaged in that snap. Some things were planted at that point, like sweet corn.”
Fast forward to today, deeper into the growing season, Pollock said, “even though it’s been cool, things are leafing out and flowering, both on ornamental plants and fruit trees.”
It’s the point when plants may be hardy enough to withstand a few cold nights, but readings below 32 — several of them — can spell trouble.
“A lot of things, whether perennial flowers, shrubbery or trees, they can sustain above-freezing temperatures in the 30s. A lot of those plants start to grow in cooler conditions anyhow so their foliage can handle it,” Pollock said.
“But last Friday night, some of the Japanese maples that had young, tender foliage on them, especially the cut-leaf varieties, I’ve seen several of those that have been nipped by the weather. It just depended on the stage of growth where they were and how succulent the foliage was. The younger it is and more tender it is, the more susceptible it is to the freezing temperatures.”
Time will tell whether some frost-damaged plants can perk up and recover, he said.
Pollock said tree fruits exposed to the cold probably have suffered long-term damage, but the degree of that won’t be seen until later in the season.
The cold also hampered products before they got a chance to grow.
“Those crops that have to bloom and get pollinated — we haven’t had a lot of good weather to even, if the flowers survived, get good pollination. So it will be several weeks or longer before we really know the true effects on our fruit production. Fruit like apples will start to grow, then they will stop growing because they were never pollinated.”
But all is not lost.
“We usually can handle some loss. We usually need just 2 to 3 percent of all the flowers on a tree to pollinate yet still have a crop,” he said. “So we can lose a lot of fruit and still have a full crop.”
The complete story includes counting earlier bad weather conditions that prevented the current freeze from actually devastating the season.
“A lot of things have been delayed. If you’re looking for a silver lining in this, it’s because of the wet weather we’ve had — 6.7 inches of precipitation above normal from Jan. 1 to now.”
Indiana County, he noted, has had it easy. The rainfall surplus has been greater in several other neighboring counties.
“What that has done, is there would have been a lot more crops in the ground if we had drier conditions,” Pollock said. “Even though it was cooler, the fields could have been worked and crops planted. There would be a lot more in the field right now that could have been damaged.
“The delay in planting is not good. However, there could have been more damaged crops and they would have had to replant.”
So, some seed has been kept in stock to await drier conditions and still is viable.
“At least you don’t have the initial expense of planting once and having to go back and do it all over again. … But now we’re pushing the clock on being able to get the rest of those crops in the ground in a timely manner,” he said.
Backyard growers in the region may have commiserated at the damage done to their modest plantings but those with more at stake — commercial growers with an eye ever on the forecast — had chances to save their crops for the season.
At Yarnick’s Farm in Armstrong Township, owner Dan Yarnick said Tuesday some products will be on a “wait and see” basis, but most escaped the damage of the persistent May cold.
Knowing a simple frost is not unheard of in May, Yarnick keeps expanses of freshly planted products under protective blankets. Triple blankets were rolled out, he said, when the forecasters called for ongoing subfreezing readings.
“We’ve had frost but we’ve never had such hard freezes like we’re having now,” Yarnick said. “The only way I’m surviving is that I have acres and acres of stuff with blankets on.
“It’s part of my routine, to have floating row covers, and they protect the early growth. I have sweet corn growing and even where it touched the blanket, it ‘burned’ it. It didn’t kill it, thank heavens, so it will still make it.
“But we have 50 acres of corn covered. It should be a foot tall, but here it is only a few inches tall. And it’s delaying our plantings. We have a lot more things to plant. I don’t know if it will catch up now, it’s been pretty long. … A lot of things are coming slow.”
The precautions such as the extra blankets added to the operational expenses for the season. So did the need to continue running the heaters in the 23 greenhouses. Thus Yarnick’s crops of cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, lettuce and peppers, part of the January planting, are maturing and going out for sale — at the expense of energy to keep the right level of warmth.
Yarnick echoed Pollock’s concern over the excessively wet weather combined with the cold.
“It’s cold and wet. If it wasn’t freezing every night, we would continue to plant. We have plants ready to go in, but we’re scared to do it,” he said. “I was scared to look at the zucchini, but it made it through.”
The summer outlook remains to be seen.
“It could be a cool summer; I’ve seen that,” he said. “The early vegetables, it’s going to impact. Who knows what’s down the road. If the weather changes and warms up — I see warming on the way, but it rains every day. The plants don’t need water every day. And it’s become a trend. The last four or five years we’ve battled the rain.”
Compounding the complications of the 2020 farming and gardening season, both Yarnick and Pollock said the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped the distribution of what products have already been on the market and probably will influence production trends in the coming years.
“Consumers have bought more supplies than they normally would and that has triggered some gaps in the supply chain,” Pollock said. “Then you have large plants that are closed.”
He cited changes in food demand and usage. Wholesale distribution to schools and restaurants, all now closed or curtailed, has slowed in favor of more demand for direct-to-consumer sales.
“But people still have to eat,” Pollock said. “They may not be eating the same things kids would have gotten in school. In fresh fruits, I think there’s been an increase in demand now for local foods and local production. So it’s positive on that side, for some producers.”
“With COVID-19, things have been busy,” Yarnick said. “People, I think, are recognizing that they want to buy local.”
The farm requires shoppers to wear face masks and provides safety gloves while urging consumers to not touch produce other than what they want to buy in the on-site store. Safety and health restrictions on farmers’ markets have added to the cost of doing business on the road this year, he said.
“I see a food shortage in this country if things don’t change,” Yarnick said. “But I also see a trend of people planting their own home gardens this year. We are selling a lot of vegetable plants.”
Yarnick compared it to the heightened interest in home food production known as “victory gardens” that Americans planted in World War II.
Yet that trend, he said, could spell trouble for farm businesses like his, he said.
“The prices for the farmers are struggling everywhere,” Yarnick said. “Every farmer I know is struggling to pay debts, and now this is going to make it harder.”
“So you have those things going through the ag sector and you get the weather issues, but that on top of this has made this a more stressful year to date,” Pollock said.
Pollock said recovery from the cold will take time and a distinct turnaround in other weather conditions.
Even the cautious growers will run into challenges of starting plants like tomatoes indoors but needing to get them outdoors into natural sunlight.
“Every day we keep moving into May, and even with the warmer forecast — we’re not expecting any dry spells — we may get a day or two when it’s dry, but it may not be enough to get the soil dried out enough to plant.”
The climate still allows for multiple plantings through the warm weather months, so the cold of May will affect single cycles of certain crops — sweet corn, for example — yet there are limits to those, Pollock said. That will mean gaps or delays in availability of field crops in a few months.
“And if you compress the planting season, you may not plant as much as you originally planned to,” he said.
Some crops are safe because their planting time hasn’t come yet.
“We’re still in good shape for vine crops. Pumpkins, cantaloupes, watermelons, those types,” he said. Cucumbers and zucchinis should be in abundance, if weather returns to seasonal norms by Memorial Day.
But some products will depend on waiting as long as necessary to be sown.
“If you can’t get it in the ground, you can’t ever harvest it,” Pollock said.