I just finished an excellent book, “Mountain Man: John Colter, the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Call of The American Westby David Weston Marshall; now I am reading “Guardians of the Valley: John Muir and the Friendship that Saved Yosemite” by Dean King. The breadth and intensity of the weather events highlighted in both these books is truly breathtaking.

Both books take place in the western U.S. in the rugged mountainous regions – and highlight Muir’s appreciation of the natural beauty and spiritualism of the outdoors and his awe and appreciation of weather of all kinds.

Webster’s defines weather as “the state of the atmosphere with respect to heat or cold, wetness or dryness, calm or storm, clearness or cloudiness.” The mountain men, like their Native American counterparts, had an innate sense of the changing weather and could read the signs that indicated a change in it. Today we have meteorology, concerned with the processes and phenomena of the atmosphere, especially as a means of forecasting the weather.

I have been in grower’s offices that sport sophisticated monitors tracking the weather both nationally and locally. They may even have weather stations set up in their fields that help them in scheduling farming operations from planting to timing application of sprays for disease control based on weather data.

If we consider all the calamities that can befall a grower, weather is still the one that is not in their control. One can try to escape the effects of weather by farming indoors (in a greenhouse or high tunnels), but even so I have seen weather prove overwhelming with severe storms that bring high winds, baseball-sized hail, heavy wet snow or maybe a tornado.

If we look at the different facets that make up our weather, we first think of heat and cold – the temperatures of the soil and air. For centuries, growers have attempted to get a jump on the growing season by using windbreaks, glass cloches, hot caps, plastic mulches, drip irrigation, low tunnels, high tunnels, transplants and row covers to hopefully get in the markets earlier.

In many cases, this works fine, but sometimes a killing cold snap can come roaring down from Canada and kill or stunt their crops. Then the normal orderly progression of harvests up the coast is disrupted, and harvests overlap one another (and the price of produce can tank). I think of the cabbage market as a classic example.

Another example of trying to outwit Mother Nature is the hoops sweet corn growers go through to have sweet corn on the Fourth of July using clear plastics over direct-seeded corn to hasten its emergence or transplanted corn.

Growers try to avoid extremely high temperatures, especially for crops that are susceptible to a decline in quality (such as some leafy greens, broccoli or tomatoes) by planting date modification or by breeding new varieties resistant to such quality issues brought on by high temps.

Wetness or dryness can be real problems, especially for vegetable growers where all they’re really doing is selling water packaged in a vegetable-shaped container. Rainfall can be spotty and growers who watch the sky hoping for rain are going to lose out in the long run. We’ve seen the development of many types of irrigation systems to mitigate the lack of moisture at critical times in the development of crops. We’ve had solid set aluminum sprinkler systems, moveable aluminum pipe, traveling guns of various sizes and capacity, large circle pivot irrigation systems, furrow irrigation and drip irrigation.

I have observed more adoption of drip irrigation throughout the country which provides more precise control over the application of water and fertilizer and a reduction in the amount of water being applied. There is a real push to refine the precision of drip irrigation through enhanced instrumentation in the field.

I believe most growers would rather have a dry year where they can control the application of moisture than a wet year. Let the rain that falls fill the ponds, wells, creeks, etc., that are the water sources for irrigations systems.

Wetness can also cause problems with diseases and interfere with harvests. One advantage of high tunnels is that they keep moisture off a crop and lessen the impact of diseases and permit activity inside to continue even though it is raining.

Next, we have calm or storm. Give me calm (although storms do bring moisture). Big storms – sometimes called “super cells” – can spawn tornadoes that can damage homes, farm buildings, woods and fields.

Red sky in morning, sailors take warning/red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Photo by Bill Lamont

There is another weather event that can be very localized and devastating in a matter of minutes to a crop – a hailstorm, with hail that can range from pea- to softball-sized. I have seen the sky turn greenish with puffball clouds (signs of severe turbulence) and then had hail rain down. I have visited fields of staked tomatoes previously full of beautiful, large green fruit with hail embedded throughout. The plants were stripped bare. I have seen devastation to fields of other vegetables in various locations over the years. The only thing you can do if you think you can salvage the crop is spray a fungicide to lessen the impact of diseases on the exposed plant tissue.

In a matter of minutes, one’s entire crop can be lost. Hail can also damage glass greenhouses and damage, shred or ruin the plastic on greenhouses or high tunnels – not to mention roofs, cars and machinery.

When we think of clearness or cloudiness, it tends to be a local/regional phenomenon. The Northeast is often cloudy. If we go southwest, we’ll find that that region has a preponderance of sunshine. A lot of large greenhouse operations are located there for that reason.

The reason that this component of the weather is important is that plants grow well in sunshine and the sun tends to warm things up. After a rain the sun comes out and begins to dry things off. Another factor is that if it is always cloudy and rainy, we humans tend to become depressed.  I vote for sunshine for both crops and those who grow them.

Weather is a big factor in the lives of farmers and humans in general. Having served in the Navy, I have a healthy respect for weather and storms and for the power of wind and water. We can try to mitigate the effects of weather on our crops, our farming practices and on its unpredictability at times, but as the adage goes, “Keep your eye to the sky” like the mountain men, Native Americans and others have throughout history.

You can contact me with feedback on my columns or ideas for future columns at wlamont@psu.edu.