Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

I've always been a bit of a weather nerd.  Okay, a bit is exaggerating.  I loved it, still do.  For a long time when I was little I wanted to be a meteorologist.  I checked out weather books in the library, especially about tornadoes. I was obsessed.  I think part of what drew me was that if I knew everything I could, I could protect myself from them.  I could help my family get to safety.  I would know what to do.  Whenever they predict us having bad storms and the like I'm glued to my computer, checking out my favorite websites and animating radars, trying to predict where the storms are going to go.  I go outside and look at the clouds and see how they're moving.  I always thought it would be the big storms that posed the greatest threat.  I never thought a calm clear night would really be my biggest worry.

It's on those cold clear nights when that dreaded enemy creeps up on you.  It's been lurking in our minds all year.  All spring it's been nice and warm and misleading.  We knew the shoe was going to drop sometime, but we hoped it wouldn't.  These last two nights it did.  These last two night the beautiful weather betrayed us.  These last two nights, it frosted.  (Insert ominous dum, dum, dum).

We started working on this Sunday.  We had everything planned out.  The Husband set up the overheard irrigation.  He and I put out row covers at the end that the water didn't reach well (yeah, that was fun.  The middles were full of water from Sat. night's rain and what was dry was slippery shoe sucking mud.  I have no balance, and I'm trying to pull cumbersome wet row covers over these plants without punching holes in the plastic or stomping on a berry plant accidentally, all while The Boy is whining because his hands are cold and The Husband is whining because I'm slow.  I told him he'd rather me be out here and slow than covered in mud and leaving when I fall down.  He shut up.) We stayed up late waiting to watch the weather (well it was late for him, and for me incidentally since Sat. night we were celebrating Lynette Howell's 21st birthday :)).  Of course all they could talk about was snow near the border.  All day I was on the net, checking out forecasts.  We subscribe to a service called Berry Alerts (through strawberryweather.com for any grower happening to read this) that sends us information about the weather and frosts and where they think it will.  From everything we gathered, no frost.  It was going to be cloudy which of course keeps temps up because the air is trapped under the clouds, and windy which wouldn't allow the frost to settle anyway.

Night One.  We set the alarm for two.  No change.  We set the alarm for four.  Big change.  It was clear and a low of 33 with 31 in some places and a north wind of 2.  The Husband gets up to check out the field and cut on the pump.  There was frost on some of the irrigation lines and a little light frost on some leaves.  I get on the Internet and monitor the temps.  The clouds roll back in around five thirty and we decide after looking at the forecasts it probably won't get colder and stop the irrigation.  The water is not freezing on the plants, so we take that as a good sign.  Yesterday I spend my afternoon slipping and sliding and sinking in six inch deep mud ditching out the middles (fun times!).

Shoe sucking mud

The Husband's solution to shoe sucking mud.
Cutoff waders.
Night Two.  Tonight, we have our game faces on, they're predicting 29 at the NWS, it's going to frost.  I make The Husband get a nap while I stay up to monitor conditions.  At eleven I see it's down to thirty six.  This is the magic number.  So I suit up and walk the field looking for signs of frost.  There's frost on the grass in the middles, but due to the black plastic we've planted the strawberries in the dew on their leaves has not yet frozen.  If I could have cranked the irrigation pump I would have, however, since I cannot, I have to leave the task coating the berry plants with ice to The Husband.  We start at 12 and after some minor issues (at one point he comes in soaking wet because he had to change a nozzle.  I have to try real hard not to laugh at that mental image) ice starts forming around four.  By six thirty when the sun begins to rise and things begin to warm the plants are coated in ice, making the field a winter wonderland.  I have a feeling I'll be ditching more today.

We're crossing our fingers for no more cold weather like last night for the rest of the season, but you can never be sure.  I remember once when I was younger it snowing in April.  The Husband doesn't like me to mention that.  We're thinking right now that we were able to save most of the blooms and berries we have on the plant now, and as far as I know we're still hoping to have berries in 2 1/2 - 3 weeks.  Hopefully.  

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Making Allies

When I was a girl, I was afraid of honeybees.  Heck, I was afraid of anything with a stinger.  Especially those huge hornets that stand guard over my carport or my mom's barn, protecting their nest.  Those things will chase you in a heartbeat and they're so loud.  I'm always trying to act real brave, like the adult I am, but when one comes after me I run like an idiot.  Then look around hoping someone didn't see me do it but knowing someone is rolling with laughter watching me run around like a crazy person from a bee (that's alright, I feel like an idiot most of the time anyway, and if I were watching myself I'd be rolling so...who am I to begrudge someone a laugh?). 

Really though, honeybees are an insect we take for granted.  They're just kind of there, yet another bug you have to deal with.  It wasn't until I started dating The Husband that I realized they are actually essential to a plant, instead of an annoyance or a decorative insect for little girls clothes.  We need these little yellow and black bugs to fly around and pollinate our plants so the vegetables come out right.  Even the shape of the fruit can be determined by pollination.  You know those strawberries that come out looking like two berries grew together, or that have two points instead of one perfect point.  That is a result of how the plant was pollinated.  I think it's amazing that something that seems so insignificant can have that much significance.

So, every year we rent honeybees to put on the farm to pollinate the strawberries.  Our bee man comes and drops some hives off in a place where they'll get plenty of shade and water (I know this sounds stupid, but I never thought of a bee drinking water.  You can actually see them go to the river and hover just above the surface drinking water.  It's so weird) and they fly around the field from blossom to blossom getting that yellow pollen all over them and depositing it around to the different plants.  They are our allies in the fight. 

I watched a TV show on PBS about this (yes, remember, I'm a dork.  I watch PBS).  There are farmers in China who have to pollinate their pear trees by hand with the equivalent of feather dusters because all of the bees have been killed off by pollution.  The other farmer The Husband works for raises over a hundred acres of watermelons.  Can you imagine having to go around to each plant and dust the flowers with a feather duster full of pollen?  I have real bad allergies and I could sneeze right now just thinking about having to do it.  Scientists aren't sure why the bees are disappearing, but they are, and it could have real consequences for your food in the future.

I’ve been toying with the idea of keeping bees.  I think it would be good for the farm, it would be neat to show it to the kids who come out and visit, and it reminds me of my granddaddy.  Honestly though, I’m too chicken right now to do it.  It hurts to be stung, and I’ve never been a masochist.  I think this Berry Girl will just stick to running missions for parts and combating the mortal enemies.  We can let some other super hero who’s just a bit braver handle the six legged ally.

Allied Territory

Monday, March 14, 2011

Rain Makes Berries

When I was in college, I took Geology and Oceanography as my sciences.  I had biology twice in high school; I didn't even want to tackle chemistry.  Turns out I really loved it and even seriously considered changing my major.  Looking back I kind of wish I had.  What can I say; I've always been a dork.  I remember my professor saying that eventually water was going to become the most important, sought after, and fought over resources in the world.  When I look at last year’s crop, I believe it.  I think it rained maybe four times all summer and things, especially the corn, just dried up in the field never making a crop.  It was awful.  I see things like that and think, how can people not believe our climate is changing?

So what is that saying, when Muhammad won't come to the mountain, the mountain must come to Muhammad?  It's a proven fact that plants need air, sun, and water to live.  We have plenty of sun and plenty of air, and if nature doesn't provide the rain it's up to us to make it happen. 

When we first bought the farm, we knew we wanted to dig a pond to use for irrigation.  It was supposed to be a simple pond.  Well, if any of you know The Husband, you know it wasn't just a simple pond.  A month later we have a 20+ foot deep hole in the ground.  It was an odyssey to have the thing dug.  The up side was he got to use the excavator, which always makes his day.  Then comes the fun part, watching it fill up.  We knew we'd tapped into some underground streams, you could see them flowing in.  However, as mentioned before, it might have rained four times so the underground streams weren't exactly at capacity.  It wasn't until we got thirteen inches in just a couple days last September that it filled up. 

Then we had to get a pump to pump the water from the pond to the berry field.  In comes Berry Girl to save the day.  It took two missions to Clinton, but I was able to complete my objective and secure the necessary parts. (Everyone knows that superheroes must have a sweet ride to cruise to missions on, well, I have a Mercury Mariner.  Fitting pump parts into this thing was a challenge.  I think someone needs an upgrade, I'm just sayin'.) 

So now we have our pond and our pump.  As per usual, The Husband puts his over analytical mind to the task and comes up with a plan to lay pipe.  Him and his dad take on this mission (I will not have any part in this), and several arguments later the pipe is laid.  Fast forward to now.  Our berries are blooming, and we even have tiny green berries (!!!), so if it freezes, we have to a) cover the berries up with row covers or  b) run water over them all night long to create a protective coating of ice over the fruit so it is not damaged.  We choose option a usually.  So far this year that has not been a problem (knock on wood).

If you look right in the middle, you'll see a tiny little berry
Our problem is the dry weather.  I know, I know, it rained last week, it's supposed to rain tomorrow and Wednesday, but it's not enough.  We've had a dry winter and the climate forecast is for a warm spring (yes I look it up, I’m a bit of a meteorology nut too, I’m a dork remember).  We haven't forgotten last summer.  We're preparing to irrigate.  We planted our berries on black plastic which allows us to get the maximum effect while using less water.  Irrigtion is great, but it only holds out as long as the rivers/ponds/aquifers do.  So the next time you say, I wish it wouldn't rain, think about your local farmer and how sweet those berries are going to be in about a month.  Think about what you eat tonight when you sit down to supper.  Without rain none of it would be possible.  What is that song...rain makes corn, corn makes whiskey, whiskey makes my baby get a little frisky?  What if we change it to rain makes berries, berries make wine, wine makes my baby get, ah, well you catch my drift.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mortal Enemies: Episode 2

I am a night owl, not a morning person.  It's so bad I don't even like to talk the first fifteen, twenty minutes I'm awake, but at nine pm I get a second wind.  I normally go to bed around midnight.  The Husband however is the complete opposite.  He falls asleep at nine-thirty on the couch and I wake him up at midnight to go to bed.  However, the past couple of nights I've been waking him up to go on covert missions.  He gets up and gets into his diesel truck and 'sneaks' down the tenth of a mile road between our house and the berry field, armed with his rifle, a horn, and an intense need for revenge.  The Objective: eliminating the threat posed by another mortal enemy...

The Deer.

When I was growing up I loved deer.  I liked that they are so pretty and graceful.  I liked the way they seemed to leap when they run.  I liked that they were kind of introverted creatures, like me.  However, I have learned that I bought into a myth.  The only time deer are introverted is when it's hunting season.  All the rest of the year you can find them grazing right beside the road, running out in front of your car, punching holes in my plastic, and mowing my berries down like a kid going through Halloween candy.

Deer hoof vs. Plastic

Every year we have a problem with deer.  It's normally worse with the sweet potatoes.  Deer love them.  When the vines have just been transplanted, they love to eat the tender shoots.  Later, when the potatoes are grown they paw them up out of the ground.  All of you hunters putting out deer corn, you need to be putting out sweet potatoes.  Trust me.

Now that the berries are right down the road from us we can keep a better eye them.  This is good and bad.  When you can walk out of your house and see them lurking towards your field in search of those tasty leaves, it can get under your skin.  Revenge for all those years of eaten sweet potatoes and berries infects you, and you find that you have turned from a docile farmer to a deer assassin (play any Muse track here, my suggestions: Assassin, New Born, and Uprising).  We've shot at them, scared them off, put up a fence saturated in disgusting deer repellant stuff (the fence actually worked until it got partially blown down by the hurricane force winds we had last week).

Hence the covert missions.  We ambush the unsuspecting creatures about one am, just as they're getting to the sweet spots.  It scares them off (although I envision them running in the woods snickering under their breath about what a sucker we are, waiting until we're back in the house and coming right back out for round two) and makes The Husband feel better so I guess all in all it's a valiant effort in the war against the mortal enemies.