Winter is hard on everyone, but the cold months can have especially drastic effects on farms. For example, frost can cause damage and significant yield loss for plants grown in late fall and early spring. Or, if you’re in the Southeast, effects from winter can be a battle for crops grown all through the winter months.
Here are some interesting ways farmers can protect their crops from a harsh winter:
Some crops, like blueberries, can be protected by turning on sprinklers and allowing the water to freeze over the berries. The frozen water insulates the berries and protects them from extremely low temperatures or sudden shifts in temperature that can happen in the south.
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Freezing water around the berries prevents the berries themselves from freezing solid and later defrosting which would change the taste and texture of harvested berries.
Of course, heating is one way to fight the cold. You often would think of heating indoor greenhouses, but we can heat outdoor crop fields and orchards with a variety of methods. One such methods that is often used in fruit and citrus orchards is simply using propane, natural gas, or oil heaters throughout the fields. These devices are placed strategically around to spread the heat evenly to the nearby plants. Too much heat can damage surrounding plants so this method has to be carefully done! This is a good method to use for medium to high height plants since the heaters are relatively tall.
For low-ground plants, an interesting heating method can be used. Hay, straw, or some other flammable material can be spread between the rows or blocks and set on fire to generate enough heat to protect crops from frost. This method is used for quick action due to an unsuspected frost occurring or generally for smaller acreage operations. Since you have to stay up all night and tend to the fires, in addition to having good weather conditions that will dissipate smoke away from where it may affect humans, this method is not as often as used.
On clear, calm nights, the air at the ground is colder than the air above it — this is called a temperature inversion. In this case, we can bring the warmer air from above to the crop level. We can do this using wind machines, and sometimes even helicopters!
This method is relatively effective and can increase the temperature by nearly 10 degrees Fahrenheit! However, the wind machine/helicopter method is rather expensive, especially if you have to hire a helicopter, so it is traditionally only done on high value crops and large acreage operations.
One of the most traditional ways to protect crops from freezing temperatures and frost is to cover them. This method can be done with plastic, hoop houses, or even with natural materials like straw and hay. This help reduce heat loss from the ground and trap what heat is lost into the air around the plants to maintain appropriate temperatures. Covering can also reduce moisture on the plants which can increase heat loss. This method is most common for bedded plants, particularly in the southeast where crops are growing throughout the winter and are susceptible to frost damage.
Winter can be a difficult time for farmers; there is much to be done to protect crops and livestock alike in addition to all the normal things like shoveling driveways and roofs, etc. However, winter also gives farmers a time to show just how innovative and capable they are!
Michelle Miller, the “Farm Babe,” is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and social media influencer and travels full time to advocate for agriculture. She comes from an Iowa-based row crop and livestock farming background and now resides on a timber farm in North Central Florida.