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Planning for unstable weather | New World Seeds & Tubers

This was a challenging year for us. We got hit by the coldest spring on record. Of course, in this part of the country, weather records don’t go back all that far; it was a relatively late area to be settled.

So, for example, we don’t have records dating back to 1816, the “year without a summer” aka “eighteen hundred and froze to death”, when New England was hit by the combination of the Dalton Solar Minimum and the eruption of Mt. Tambora. It snowed several times during the summer that year.

We can guess it was pretty cold here that summer. The weather here is naturally a little more stable than that in New England, but it was probably cold enough that most summer crops would have failed for lack of heat units.

Right now we’re in the middle of a cool, almost autumnal August. Getting tomatoes to ripen will be a challenge.

Conventional hybrid corn-seed dusted with fungucide is performing just fine aside from being late, but something went seriously wrong with all the organic OP corn we’re aware of–possibly fungus in the cold wet soil. Our seed was untreated. To its credit, it’s bearing a small crop anyway, but the plants are severely stunted. We’ve heard from others who noticed the same problem.

The weather was hard on warm-weather beans and squashes too. Squash seed from us will be limited next year. Place your order in early!

On the other hand, potatoes being highly flexible are producing something. Yields might be lower than normal but we have so many potatoes we’ll have plenty for next year.

Our grains performed quite well despite the cool weather. No problem ripening most of them.

Right now I’m shopping for seed for hardy root crops such as beets, carrots, rutabagas, and turnips. Normally we would plant these now, which is what I’m planning despite being a bit slow on the ball, but we do have the option of planting them late winter through early spring. If we can guess which years will be colder and wetter than usual, we have the option of planting them for growing through unusually cool summers, when warm-season crops might fail for lack of enough heat.

The general principle is that you diversify your plantings for similar reasons as diversifying your investments: to mitigate risk of total failure. Within the different crops, it also makes sense to intentionally allow more variability within a variety than is usually the case, so that some individual plants can make a crop when their fellows fail. This is an application of Pareto’s law as applied to crops, whereby 20% of your individual plants may provide 80% of the crop.

In 1816, the corn (maize) and potatoes failed, but wheat and rye were near bumper-crops because they tolerate much cooler temperatures than corn, and their primary diseases and pests were kept in check by the cold.

The weighting of the crop mix could be adjusted for the phase of climate cycles that we’re anticipating, much as a portfolio manager can weigh his investments according to what phase of the credit expansion and contraction cycles (“boom and bust”) the economy is heading into.

In terms of planting, that is likely to mean more rutabagas, less corn. NASA had up until fairly recently been predicting a solar maximum that should have already started (and hasn’t) and was to show up “no later than 2012″ that would be so powerful the northern lights would show up south of the 45th parallel. I haven’t see any of the light shows they’ve been predicting so far. If the solar maximum doesn’t show up by 2012 I suggest preparing for the possibility of more and worse of the same as you’ve been experiencing, which will depend on what part of the world you’re in but is likely to be generally colder, and either wetter or drier than usual depending on how the diminution of the Jet Stream impacts your part of the world. Here, getting air masses off the world’s largest ocean, it gets cold and wet.

The earth’s climate has been relatively warm and stable since about 1850, but it is a matter of historical record you can easily confirm for yourself that during “grand solar minima” such as the Dalton Minimum, the Maunder Minimum, and the Spörer Minimum, winters were significantly colder than they are now, and summers shorter and cooler. I suppose it’s also worth noting that technically we’re in an “interglacial epoch” within the Quaternary Ice Age.

Generally speaking, it’s easier to raise food in warmer and preferably more stable weather. Imagine winters as severe as the one that caused the Great Irish Famine of 1740-1741, not to be confused with the later Potato Famine of the summer of 1845. With current population levels and food stocks stretched as tight as they are, there’s not much room for error. I don’t pretend to be able to predict the weather, but there is a hazard that needs to be prepared for. Are you ready?

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