Springtime Farming… Sort of!
By Doug Fabbioli
As every farmer does, I have had to learn to dance with Mother Nature. A farmer can take some risks when planting, but it sure is nice when we have some consistency in patterns and expectations for the weather. Over the past couple of decades our weather has been erratic from year to year, and with the relatively warm winter we have just experienced farmers have a lot of things to consider, both good and challenging.
On the positive side, we have been able to prune our vines and keep our crews working in the vineyards without snow days and major cold weather considerations. We will have a lull in pruning projects as we finish our rough pruning because we will wait until after bud break for the final pruning. This break will allow us to catch up on other projects that we have not been able to get to yet. Trellis repairs, hardscape projects on the farm, and building maintenance all come to mind when I think of this opportunity of time. A downside to this could be cash flow: many farms have tight budgets and plan on cost-balancing by using those snow days for indoor work. There are times where a farmer will loan out some team members to other farms that don’t have the staff. This helps keep the team working, the budget balanced, and helps to cement solid relationships with the neighbors.
Another positive aspect of this mild weather is the ability to work the ground. Timing for farmers is critical year-round, hence the phrase “make hay while the sun is shining.” Another farming hint on when to start working the ground is “when you watch your neighbor work his ground and not get stuck!” Frozen ground does not till well with any tractor or implement. Soggy ground is even worse. So timing when to get your tractor out in the field is important and watching the forecast to find the best window to work the ground before the next rain is critical. We do a bit of large scale gardening on our farm in addition to the grapes. Most years in Virginia, late March is the earliest we can get out, but I was working the ground on Valentine’s Day this year. It’s a dance step of balance: getting it done early or risk making more of a mess.
Just because the winter is mild and the plants are waking up earlier does not mean that the cold of the season is gone. For our region, we’re told that Mothers Day is our last chance for a frost. We have had a number of frosts right around Mothers Day over the years and they can be very damaging. If my new green shoots have been out and growing for a few weeks I can lose all the fruit for the season as well as all the energy the plant used to push out those shoots. We like it when there is a steady cold winter season and then a steady warm up with no late cold snaps.
Another challenge that our farmers face with a warm winter has to do with pests. We want the diseases and predatory insects to die off in the winter cold so we can start fresh in the spring. When the weather is not cold enough the spores from some of the funguses can survive and give us an early disease pressure. The bugs can do the same thing. Cold during the winter, while the plants are dormant, is good for getting rid of some of these problems we might face in the growing season.
Consistency is best so that what we learn in one year will apply to the next, but is a luxury we don’t always get. Give some thought to these issues as you sip your locally grown wine, eat your local food, and watch the weather man. The dance with Mother Nature changes regularly and nobody knows that more than the farmer!
About the Author: Farmer, winemaker, entrepreneur, educator, and leader, Doug Fabbioli has been accelerating the growth and quality of Virginia’s wine industry since 1997. With his wife Colleen, Doug is the owner/operator of Fabbioli Cellars in Leesburg, VA. He is the founder and director of The New Ag School, which focuses on teaching the next generation of farmers and agriculture-related leaders. No wonder they call Doug Fabbioli the Godfather of DC’s Wine Country.