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The weird season

On January 1, it was 48 degrees on my farm. My sons were at the playground, dressed in sweatshirts and jeans, rather than winter coats and mittens. Their ice skates had yet to be used this year. Their sleds haven't even come out of the garage. Walking out in the warm weather among the goats, I noticed my cowslips and primroses are up and there are buds on the pussy willows.

On the farm, we measure the severity of the winter by the final full barn cleaning before spring - the last one before heavy snow and ice make it impossible to get a wheelbarrow in and out of the barn. In a cold year, the last barn cleaning happens before Thanksgiving. A good year is one when we get one in early December. Eric mucked out the barn on the first day of the new year, which has never happened before.

Today, on the fourth day of the year, an arctic blast dropped us below 0 for the first time - it was -1 F when I got up this morning. I had sent my groggy husband down in the night to turn on the backup furnace (our wood cookstove doesn't hold a fire overnight, and I was concerned about pipes in our kitchen freezing at temps below 0, only to discover that said backup furnace doesn't work - how long it hasn't been working is an open question - we haven't needed to turn it on this year.

The temperatures have been not only warm, but bizarrely so - there's nothing unusual about a day that starts below zero F here - what is unusual is that it hasn't happened before this. I went around and finally sealed up the windows on the last day of December - something I ordinarily do in October or early November. We've had days that I could open them up and let in fresh air through all of December.

Following our incredibly rainy fall (starting with Irene at the end of August, we've had more than 40 inches of rain) and an unusually warm one, we had a heavy (and not unexpected) outbreak of meningeal parasite in our goats - a parasite carried by snails and transmitted by white tailed deer, it is one of the banes of our existance here, and is particularly problematic when an unusually wet, warm fall encourages the snails - we can treat it, but we've never had six cases in two weeks before. On the other hand, we've never had 46 inches of rain between August and the end of December before, either.

Now weather is complicated and climate is complicated and you will note that I make no claims about what has or hasn't influenced things. What i do know is that in ten years of watching the weather, our average last and first frost dates have moved - and the fall last frost date has moved more. Seven of ten years have had higher than expected for the region rainfall, four of them dramatically higher. Snowfall totals seem to vary more dramatically than they have in the recent past in the area as well - and we have more years when early melt offs or unusually warm falls and early winters are followed by long periods of cold with no snow cover - tough on perennial plants. I've watched my perennials break dormancy earlier as well.

The aggregate of my research and watching my site probably isn't worth very much scientifically - I haven't lived here long enough and the local data wasn't taken from my precise site, so its value is uncertain. What it does teach me is that adaptation to complicated weather is something that has to be a priority in our lives, however.

What does that mean? First, it means keeping good records - no one but you and I will be watching exactly when the buds unfurl on your property, what the high and low temperatures are, when the birds come back, what the average rainfalls are. If you live in a place of high variability in weather, as I do, this can be a major issue - the local weather sensors are set about 5 miles from my house, but much, much lower, and the local weather forecasts are often not even accurate at DESCRIBING the weather at my house when it is happening, much less forseeing it - it is very common to look at the weather sensors and have them report conditions very different than the ones we are experiencing. Two years ago, we had four and a half FEET of snow fall in a matter of four days - the local weather station reported that we had six inches. So records for your site are incredibly important - you can't rely on regional statistics to necessarily be accurate (and that's one reason I wouldn't make any claims about my site because I am comparing my personal data with regional and local statistics). You can learn a lot by watching a place for a long time.

Second, it means thinking about patterns - and about appropriate responses to patterns. We have noticed that while our last frost date seems to have shifted back a bit, the first fall frost is increasingly late and has had a much more dramatic change. In some ways this is good news for us - it means our fall gardens have that much more to go. A good friend of mine ate ratatouille from her garden on Halloween - that hasn't happened much in upstate NY history. Our average first frost date is supposed to be the first week of October, but in 5 out of ten years has been significantly later than that - including three of ten in which it has come after October 25. That gives me more incentive to push boundaries and extend seasons into the fall.

The bad side of that for us, as goatkeepers is that our single biggest goat health issue is the outbreak of meningeal worm caused by wet, warm falls. We are still working on strategies to reduce our exposure - we've introduced ducks to our pasture to eat snails, trained our Great Pyrenees dog Mac to keep the deer off the pastures as much as possible, and added cattle to our rotation, since they are less vulnerable to the parasite and if someone is going to eat those snails by accident, better it be the cows.

We're also working on exploring whether guinea fowl or geese might reduce the snail population further - but we're also recognizing that this will be an ongoing problem for us, and preparing to treat it. One question we haven't been able to get clarity from any vet on is whether it is possible to select effectively for resistance to meningeal worm - camelids (llamas, alpacas, camels) are much more vulnerable to meningeal parasites, while sheep and cows much less, but whether there is variation in resistance to goat breeds or within breed populations is another route to explore.

In the end, it simply may be necessary for us to populate our wetter pastures with other animals who can handle them better. The good news about all the warmth and rain is that we now often have pasture much longer than was historically common - last year our pastures were green until early December and the goats didn't really "hit the hay" hard until then. This year we've had palatable pasture for them to the beginning of January. While it would be foolish to count on this, grazing longer is good for us.

For perennials species, one necessary adaptive strategy may have to be choosing plants that can tolerate more extreme temperatures - even though generally things seem to be getting slightly warmer here. The reason is that the fairly consistent snowcover that the region was once able to count on insulating perennial plantings is often absent, or is melted off in warm spells long before cold weather disappears - ironically as it gets warmer, we may need more cold-tolerant plantings.

Other areas may need more drought tolerance, to shift more of their plantings to cooler seasons, may need to adapt to more heat or more snow cover. And of course, we shouldn't count on any patterns being perpetual - the regional projections of the GISS for the Northeast suggest that we may get wetter for a while as warmer air picks up more moisture from no-longer-frozen seas in the north, but but that after 2025, we may find that things get dryer and warmer - necessitating longer term shifts of new kinds.

This makes long term thinking difficult - do I push to plant sugar maples that are adapted to sugar production in warmer places than this, so that we won't see sugar maples disappear from our landscape as the region warms? Or should I wait and see what the patterns are? Do I want to risk introducing new varieties of plants that are kept in check by cold now, but may be more troublesome in the future? Fundamentally, our focus may have to shift many, many times in the coming decades.

Meanwhile, we're kept busy keeping warm on a cold day - chopping and hauling wood, making soup and bread, playing with the kids, petting the dogs, snuggling up with a cat on our laps. It feels like winter has set in for good - but of course, that's an illusion - I got out the ice skates only to see that the forecast suggests 42 and rainy on Saturday. So on with the weird season!

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