Local farmers adapt to cold

Unusually harsh weather has lingered into early spring the past two years

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 
photoA “hoop house” protects young plants from cold weather at Purple Rain Vineyard in Hockinson.

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photoPurple Rain Vineyard has already started growing spinach, kale and other greens under cover at the organic farm in Hockinson.

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Luisa DePaiva walked among four narrow soil beds, gently lifting the fabric blanketing them inside a covered hoop house. A steady, cold rain pattered against the plastic roof overhead.

It’s early March, but the growing season at Purple Rain Vineyard and other Clark County farms is well under way. For DePaiva, it was time to check on her seedlings young spinach, kale, lettuce and other greens growing under the protection of a somewhat controlled indoor environment. DePaiva liked what she saw.

“They’re looking quite beautiful,” said DePaiva, who runs the farm with her husband, James Voisin.

Clark County growers are used to working around bad weather conditions. Purple Rain, a small certified organic farm near Hockinson, is no different. But in each of the last two years, local farms have been hamstrung by unusually cold, wet conditions into early summer. Things were so bad, the U.S. Department of Agriculture activated disaster relief programs to help recoup losses for both years. That includes emergency loans announced just last month, and available to growers in Clark, Cowlitz, Skamania and Wahkiakum counties who saw crop damages during the first half of 2011.

“The rain basically never stopped,” said Taylor Murray, who leads a local branch of the Farm Service Agency.

But only a handful of Southwest Washington farms have applied for such federal aid programs. Many view them as geared more toward huge wholesale operations, not the small community farms much more common in the region. Others say the programs simply aren’t worth the trouble, or the cost it takes to insure crops for eligibility in some cases.

Local farms mostly opt to work around whatever Mother Nature throws at them just like they’ve always done.

“You can’t beat her,” said Liz Nelson, owner of Heavenly Bounty outside Battle Ground. “So you have to do your best to fool her.”

Extreme conditions have delivered a significant blow to some farms in recent years. Mavis Nickels, owner of Nick’s Acres near Brush Prairie, said her yields last year were down by about a third from what’s normal. The farm grows blueberries and currants, among other crops, and simply couldn’t get everything to ripen without the right conditions, Nickels said. Other crops are susceptible to rotting and mold with too much moisture.

Nickels said local farms generally don’t insure their crops because there aren’t major disaster threats like other parts of the country. In Oklahoma, for example, all it takes is one powerful hailstorm to wreak havoc, she said.

“We don’t have that much severe weather,” Nickels said.

Farms in Southwest Washington also tend to be diverse, Murray said that is, they grow a wide variety of things and don’t bet on the success of a single crop to sustain them. If one crop doesn’t fare well one year, others on the same farm may do just fine, Murray said.

DePaiva, Nelson and others start their growing early in part because of their participation in community-supported agriculture. CSA programs allow local residents to pay farms directly for a weekly supply of fresh produce throughout the season. DePaiva served 110 members through Purple Rain last year, she said. Her first pickup date is next month.

For Heavenly Bounty, Nelson said she’s shifted her focus a bit to adapt to colder weather. Nelson stopped growing melons, for example, while keeping sturdier cold-weather crops. Heavenly Bounty also uses a greenhouse of its own to avoid the elements.

Purple Rain has been growing for six years. DePaiva said she’s noticed a big change in weather since those first couple years, which offered warmer and better growing conditions.

It’s too early to tell what local farmers will see in the coming year. Or the next day, for that matter. DePaiva and others woke up to a surprise blanket of snow last week. And Nelson isn’t holding her breath for a sudden burst of spring.

“I’m just going to plan on the previous two years that it’s going to be a cold, wet spring,” she said.

Meanwhile, Nelson lives by a mantra that’s familiar to just about any farmer.

“You have to be optimistic,” she said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.