Warm Fall Yields Endless Broccoli

By JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff

LITTLE COMPTON, R.I. — It’s 45 degrees, a balmy day by December standards, and Skip Paul is showing a visitor around his farm, alternately tailed and led by his spunky farm dog, Dewey.

Standing inside one of the five hoop houses at Wishing Stone Farm, where he has already started his indoor winter crop, Paul says that because of the mild fall he’s actually still harvesting vegetables from his fields outdoors.

“Usually you see temperatures dropping significantly, so by this time during normal years, we would have had all our carrots and beets in,” he says. “This year has been so mild, we’ve postponed harvest. We’re pulling in a half-acre of broccoli. That is unbelievable. It’s clearly a sign of global warming or something to be able to harvest broccoli almost until Christmastime.”

What Paul is seeing in his fields is part of a larger trend, which was detailed in February by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a revised plant hardiness map. The map showed most hardiness zones in the lower 48 states are now about 2.5 degrees warmer.

A shift in average temperatures and warmer-than-normal falls has meant a longer growing season for Rhode Island farmers. In fact, a drive along Route 77 in Little Compton reveals a few still-green fields shrugging up kale and other crops not typically seen outside in mid-December.

Ken Ayars, chief of the Division of Agriculture at the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), says he too has noted the longer growing season. But, he says, what’s more relevant is that in Rhode Island there is now a market for these late crops, referring to the now six wintertime farmers markets around the state.

“There was never a reason to extend the growing season before, so now that there’s a market for crops farmers deliberately try to extend growing season. And they can take advantage of warmer falls,” Ayars says.

Even if there had been a longer growing season a decade ago, farmers would still have harvested before the first frost simply because there was no market for their late fall and winter harvests, according to Ayars.

While the winter markets do provide an outlet for late harvest and year-round growing, Paul says they can only absorb so much.

“Winter markets … are flat or slightly down because of the economy or the fact that there’s an explosion of new winter markets sprouting up everywhere,” Paul says.

To supplement sales at winter markets, Wishing Stone is offering a year-round CSA for the second straight year.

There is also the issue of how the warm weather has been affecting the timeline of the plants in Wishing Stone’s winter hoop house, which will sustain the farm’s market and CSA commitments during the winter months.

As a year-round grower, Paul sees his winter hoop house as a sort of a savings bank. Paul explains that he invests by putting plants in the hoop house in late fall. He then withdraws from that savings bank from late December through the end of January, knowing that what he cuts will not re-grow due to the low levels of sunlight during that period.

Standing in the entrance of the hoop house, Paul looks out over rows of salad greens and explains that because of the warm fall, the winter greens in his hoop houses are maturing ahead of schedule.

“These plants are way ahead of where we want them to be. We’re going to have to take more out of this bank account than we anticipated,” Paul says.

The rapidly maturing plants will need to be cut sooner, making it difficult for Wishing Stone to keep enough product growing through the last week of January.

But, like most farmers, Paul recognizes he is at the mercy of forces he can’t control, so he must accept the vagaries of the changing climate. He is not worried. It will just take some planning.