A Frosty Night from a Young Farmer's Perspective
Every spring, all farmers struggle with frost and jump through hoops trying to keep their farm safe; and that’s exactly what this small, family run produce farm in New Jersey did.
by Lianna Bonacorsi
Just about eight years ago, my family had outgrown our tiny house in Trenton, New Jersey with the birth of my little sister Nora, the fifth child. My father had grown up on a muck farm in Oswego, NY, and my mother in a small town just outside of Albany, NY. They had always dreamt of owning a fruit farm, and eight years ago their dreams became reality in Hunterdon county, NJ. It was a change for all of us; my older sisters (ages 12 and 13) were switching from an urban middle school to a rural, very small, grade k-8 school that both my younger brother (age 5) and I (age 8) also attended. This was the beginning of a real family adventure, one that would last forever and make memories that would never be forgotten.
Of all the challenges we’ve had to face, weather might just have been our most difficult. Not just hurricanes Sandy and Irene, or the insane winters with four feet of snow overnight, but the frost. All farmers know and understand the all too real threat of frost, myself included. Every spring, we all know to expect some damage on our blossoms, whether it be to peach or strawberry, it happens. However, this year farmers have been noticing some odd and unfortunate numbers.
Recently New Jersey residents have enjoyed some fantastic working weather: nice high 70s, even some days in the low 80s. On the other hand, we’ve had some cold fronts come through where nights got into the very low 20s. There was one night in particular when every farmer’s favorite weather source was finally in agreement with one fact: it was going to be cold, cold enough for a 90% kill on our already first bloom buds, which is 21 degrees for peaches, inconveniently one of our larger crops. This frost started as an advection frost and later in the night became a radiant frost. An advection frost usually occurs on a windy night, where there’s no inversion, and the temperature is less than 32 degrees Fahrenheit. A radiant frost would usually occur when it’s calm and clear out; there is inversion, and the temperature is greater than 32 degrees Fahrenheit up higher, and a frost or freeze at the ground level.
Allow me to set the scene of our dinner table the night before the frost: My father at the head of the table sipping his homemade wine, discussing all chances of saving our fruit with my mother, also enjoying wine. My siblings and I sit quietly eating our venison, salad, and applesauce, my little sister only piping in to suggest that we lure the deer to our field with corn in hopes that their body heat would raise the temperature a few degrees. While she is quite the comedian and pretty cute, we were still all stressed out.
While looking at the pros and cons of our options, our local fruit agent had advised us to burn fires, and to, “not be a boy scout about it”, in his words. If we had prepared more in advance, we could have considered the variety of chemical options for protecting our fruit, but because we’re a smaller farm and only run by our family, they were not taken into consideration at the dinner table that night.
My parents had never started fires to save our fruit before; they never felt it necessary before that night. The state of New Jersey had already announced it was permitting farmers controlled open burning for a few nights that week due to the low temperatures. It was really only that day that we would be lighting fires every ten feet or so throughout one of our two orchards.
When I got home from school that day, my mother and I began using our tractors to bring wood out to the field, making little stacks of seven or eight pieces, which we did until the sun went down. Meanwhile, my father worked on fixing three huge fans, strapping them to our tractor, and getting the tractor plus a generator into the upper field where we didn’t plan on lighting fires that night. We knew it wouldn’t save our whole upper field, but we had to focus on just one.
That night was comprised of lots of caffeinated tea, heavy coats, my little sister and I crumpling paper to start fires, and my parents up all night keeping the fires lit. It was hard work, loading wood onto tractors endlessly; there’s no fun way to phrase staying up all night in the low twenty degree weather working. Not to mention, my father had work the next morning as he’s a chemist working five days a week from 8 am till 5 pm, and my mother had volunteered to help with a fundraiser at the local school the next morning. Their dedication and hard work is really something. The entire time I was preparing for the cold night, all I could think about was our warm, juicy peaches in July; so ripe that they just wanted to fall into your hands from the tree, and when you bit into them their intense flavor could make you cry from joy as the delicious juice erupted all over your face and hands. Losing our peaches would’ve been a big disappoint for both us and our customers, as our peaches are definitely a highlight to the farming season.
While I’m not sure that all of that time and hard work actually did save our peaches, farming has once again has taught me a lesson. Everything I’ve learned from just one night is astonishing, about the difference between advection and radiant frosts, solutions for different frosts, the temperatures for 10% and 90% kill of different stages of blossoms, controlled open burning for farmers that New Jersey allows, and so much more. Lucky us, I’m certain we’ll face more frost in years to come.
Lianna Bonacorsi is a high school student from Hunterdon County, NJ; devoted to her family, farm (bonacorsi family farm), art, and writing. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.