Sunday, March 8, 2009

Winter's Revenge

Leigh Hauter said he never saw it coming.

"I didn't realize it was getting that cold," he said of the afternoon the Big Freeze descended. "We went for a walk and the water in the boiler was already frozen."

The wood-fired boiler in question is the one that heats farmer Hauter's greenhouse and his thousands of new seedlings. They represent nothing less than his spring crops for the coming CSA season. If he couldn't somehow get his frozen boiler working again in the face of a near-record March cold snap, he was looking at thousands of dollars in damage.

Leigh rose early the next morning and got to work trying to feed fresh water to the boiler. That meant hauling many hundreds of feet of fresh plastic pipe up Bull Run Mountain to the artesian well that supplies his water. The old 1 1/4"-inch water pipe was not only frozen solid after a night of temperatures dipping into single digits, it had burst open in several places.

Soon Leigh's water-soaked gloves were frozen as well, then his hands as he struggled into the second day to replace the pipes. A blast of wind ripped off his hat and made his work seem all the more desperate. Meanwhile, thousands of trays of seedlings inside the greenhouse were beginning to feel the effects. The potting soil was freezing. The seedlings were wilting.

After two days of this, the return of winter--in the form of a nasty cold front that had dumped snow from Birmingham in the deep south all the way to Boston--finally moved out to sea and Leigh surveyed the damage. He called a nursery in Indiana and placed an order for replacement seedlings that set him back at least $2,000.

But look here. As the greenhouse thawed again, there were signs of life where none could rightly be expected. Tiny seedlings, barely an inch tall, had managed to survive even when the soil they were rooted it had frozen stiff. "It's amazing, isn't it?" said Leigh as he reached down to inspect his little broccoli plants. "The sorrel wasn't affected at all," he says, pointing to plastic trays where hundreds of sprouts are growing.

So it is back to getting ready for a new year at Bull Run Farm outside The Plains, Virginia. Leigh continues to plant and water his seed trays. Meanwhile, his CSA subscribers are ready for a new season as well. Sunday was an open house wherein subscribers were invited out to the farm for tours and to collect their own eggs. Leigh has two busy chicken tractors in the fields. At one, the chicks that arrived last October just a day old are now full-grown and have started laying eggs.

Around the other tractor, the chickens mingle with geese strutting and honking around the enclosure, as well as several heritage turkeys that have formed a gobbling chorus. Leigh uses the geese to perform weeding chores on the farm. But apparently they also like to eat chicken eggs, so Leigh has the nesting area covered with a tarp. He pulls back the tarp and we collect a dozen eggs, all laid within the last couple of hours and still warm.

Leigh had expected a few visitors but instead several dozen subscribers showed up. He'd been giving tours all morning. I wondered if our current economic hard times had not discouraged CSA subscriptions and Leigh calculated that out of about 500 subscribers, a dozen or so had recently "come up with excuses to back out." But wife Wenonah said others are joining, and not because they are fanatic about local food but because "they just don't trust the food at the supermarket anymore and they heard about us."

The Hauters were a bit aggravated when the visitors drove their vehicles over newly planted rye crops. The rye is a cover to provide fertility for fields where Leigh plans to plant vegetables in June. It looks just like grass, which it is. On a sloping area outside the greenhouse Leigh's field of garlic is several inches tall, the little plants raising their heads above a thick mulch of hay.

Bull Run Farm is set back in a narrow, thickly forested valley. It's hard to imagine how Leigh and Wenonah grow crops on the mountainside. But as you walk about, you see clearings here and there where a plastic-covered hoop house abuts a field, indicating an area that soon will be planted with broccoli and Chinese cabbage and sorrel.

This day temperatures would climb over 70 degrees. The last blast of winter was already fading into memory.


Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

There are so many ways to loose a crop! Glad to see I am not the only one fool enough to raise food on the side of a hill!

In my garden, I often noticed that tiny seedlings of lettuce will survive cold a lot better than mature lettuce. Same with peas.

As far, as sorrel, one of my favorite greens, it's indestructible! See a recent post of mine:

Thanks again for continuing to reporting on Bull Run Farm. It is fascinating to me. And - I am sure - is (or will be) very eye-opening for many people.

Anonymous said...

How fun to read about Leigh again! I belonged to his CSA back around '98 or so, and loved hearing his stories from the farm. Like the one where he accidentally left the spout open on a several hundred gallon tank of fresh honey (I think it was because the honey was slow to come out, and while waiting he forgot about it). He said that at some point much later, he came down to find that room about an inch or two deep in honey! I can't retell it exactly right but the way he told the story had me in hysterics... anyway, glad to hear he's still in business and that his seedlings were hardier than he thought!

Ed Bruske said...

Sylvie, another ironclad little plant is spinach. Remember that plastic tunnel I started back in December with my fingers crossed? Well, we had a huge wind storm and the plastic was ripped away. Every that had germinated died from exposure. Everything except the spinach. Even after near-record cold, wind, ice and snow, many of the tiny seedlings are now growing into plants. I just re-seeded the area with more spinach. As long as it doesn't get too hot too fast....