April 25, 2010

Sow early: Many farmers betting warm weather is here to stay

BETH QUIMBY Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — Normally, Bill Bamford plants peas at Maxwell Farm in Cape Elizabeth around mid-April.

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click image to enlarge

Bill Bamford steers as Josh Fedorka, left, Lois Bamford, Peewee Biaz and Taly Rivera put young strawberry plants in a custom planter at Maxwell Farm.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

This year he put the peas in March 19 and the corn a week later, the earliest he has ever planted in his 35 years of farming.

"It is a big gamble at this point, because the rule of thumb is you can get a frost almost to Memorial Day," said Bamford.

Spring arrived three weeks early this year, and it is driving some farmers a little bit crazy. Bamford and some other adventurous growers are throwing out all the tried and true farming maxims and betting one of the earliest, warmest springs in memory will continue.

They are hoping that they will be able to deliver strawberries, swiss chard and even corn to markets a little bit earlier than the competition.

Other farmers are taking a more cautious approach. But they all agree that thanks to four or five years of abnormal springs, the art of deciding when to plant has become a lot more uncertain.

"We are all trying to sort these issues out. Some people are going to gamble and do extraordinarily well and others will gamble and lose," said Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Libby said more farmers across the state are using growing techniques, such as hoop houses and floating row covers, that allow them some control over unpredictable weather.

This year, farmers in Maine are contending with one of the warmest, wackiest springs on record. Apple trees are blooming, garlic is already knee-high in some plots, and asparagus is sprouting weeks ahead of schedule. Some farmers say it is hard to follow the conventional advice to plant corn only after oak leaves reach the size of a mouse's ear – usually around May 20 – when the oak trees are budding in April.

The average daily temperature at Portland International Jetport this April has been running 20 percent higher than normal. As of Friday, the average daily temperature was 55 degrees, compared with a normal 46 degrees. The average daily temperature in March was 46 degrees, an 18 percent departure from normal.

The temperature hit 85 degrees on April 7 at the jetport. That was a good two weeks ahead of the three previous record high temperatures for April: 92 degrees on April 28, 2009; and 85 degrees on April 21, 1957, and April 20, 2005.

"That is a big deal when you are talking about a transition season," said Andy Pohl, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gray.

Nor has precipitation followed the usual patterns. Since July 1, the jetport has seen a mere 37.1 inches of snow, compared with 66.4 inches on average.

March was also the wettest on record, with 11.2 inches, outstripping the previous 9.97-inch record set in 1953. This month has been comparatively dry with 1.1 inches as of April 23, compared with 3.14 inches on average.

Ken Beaudoin of Midnight Meadow Farm in Saco said warm weather made it hard to resist planting some crops early, so he put in lettuce, radishes, spinach and peas weeks early in the plots closest to the road, where passers-by can see them.

"Seeing rows of green in April is pretty exciting," said Beaudoin.

Greg Gillespie, manager of produce at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, planted corn 10 days early, and if all goes well, he will pick it by July 10.

"But you really have to watch it," he said.

Ramona Snell of the Snell Family Farm in Buxton said it is hard to know what to do.

"Experience kind of tells you it can't be real, and yet a lot of the perennial plants are cooking along," said Snell.

She is throwing caution to the wind and planting some of the potatoes a week or two early.

Mort Mather, who has grown organic vegetables at Easter Orchard Farm in Wells for more than 35 years, said although he is planting on schedule, he is still reaping benefits from the early spring. Usually he treats himself to the first asparagus shoots in his beds on his birthday, May 10.

"I have asparagus in the house right now," said Mather.

But other farmers said they are taking no chances.

Dick Fowler, who has farmed Pleasant Hill Gardens in Scarborough for 35 years, said he has planted early in the past and discovered that everything catches up once it really warms up.

"I am not jumping. It could still snow," Fowler said.

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com

 

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