GRAFTON, Mass. - Last week, it was summer; this week it feels like winter, but the calendar says spring.
For many sun worshippers, it's a sneak preview of better days. For orchard and crop farmers, it could be a disaster.
Monday’s low temperature in Grafton was 18 degrees, hurting the broccoli seedlings that spent the night under a plastic tent at the Community Harvest Project, located on Wheeler Road. Likewise, orchards that grow fruit trees in the area are in worse shape; early buds have bloomed then were killed by the recent winter temperatures.
It all adds up to an early spring of bizarre weather that, if it continues, could mean a smaller harvest this summer and fall.
As they looked over 720 broccoli plants, volunteer coordinator Paul Grady and farm manager, Ken Dion, held out hope the seedlings will live.
“We’ll know how they did over the next few days,” Grady said. These plants are hardier to colder temperatures, but last night might have been too much.
Since the Harvest Project donates all of its bounty to the Worcester County Food Bank in Shrewsbury, the seesaw weather could mean less food for the poor. Jean McMurray, the food bank's executive director, said the Grafton farm is “unique” because they are the only non-profit that donates to them, the rest are from family farms around the county.
“We’re grateful for whatever we can get,” she said.
In 2011, the Community Harvest Project donated 173,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables, representing 25 percent of the food bank’s fresh food total.
Community Harvest does their best to manage erratic weather. Most of their other crops are in hot houses, including tomatoes, eggplants, beans, and peppers. They won’t be moved outside till April 20. And since the winter was mild, Dion was able to plow the fields in March, two weeks earlier than normal, when, in most years, the frost is still a foot deep.
But the month of February in Massachusetts was the fifth driest in 118 years, according to the National Climatic Data Center, forcing the farm to rely on its irrigation system. But eventually, they will need help from Mother Nature, though the 10 day forecast predicts little or no chance of rain.
The teaser weather might have have spelled doom for fruit lovers. Most fruit trees have been fooled by the warm temperatures, only to be shocked by the cold. “The Boston Globe” reported yesterday that some orchards, like Nashoba Winery in Bolton, could lose up to 20 percent of their apples and peaches.
Brimfield Farm, located in Sturbridge, supplies their fruit to Community Harvest. Grady said that according to David Cheney, their contact, the peach trees “fared pretty well” despite the frost.
But farmers like Grady factor not just bad weather, but also pests and, to a much smaller extent, inexperienced farm hands.
“We always plant extra,” said Grady, since farming has so many uncertainties a certain percentage of crops will die anyway.