The 5 to 6-day cold snap that pushed Phoenix temperatures lower than those in Chicago and Boston is over, and today, it's positively balmy outside. This morning's low was a toasty 40 degrees in town. For most of us, handling the arctic weather required little more than piling on a few extra layers of clothing, covering the bougainvillea and cranking up the heat. But for our local farmers, it's been a nightmare.
Here's what a few of our prominent local farmers dealt with -- and lost -- during the cold snap.
Full disclosure: I date Dave Jordan, one of the farmers mentioned in this story.
"It's been brutal," says Bob McClendon of McClendon's Select, who kept track of the atypical low temperatures on his farm in Peoria and found this: Saturday morning, 21 degrees; Sunday, 19; Monday, 22; Tuesday, 23; and Wednesday, 27. When temperatures dip below 32 degrees Fahrenheit and stay there for several hours, farmers call it a "hard freeze," which often means they'll lose their above-ground crops. Root vegetables have a better chance of surviving, but there's really no guarantee of that either. During the cold snap, temperatures on McClendon's farm were dropping below freezing by 10 pm, which means his crops were exposed to hours and hours of freezing temperatures. The same was true at other local farms, all of which are located in outlying (and therefore colder) areas.
McClendon estimates he will lose 50-75% of his citrus (which represents somewhere between $20,000-$30,000), but he won't really know for sure for the next seven to 10 days. "When you pick it, and it goes soft and squishy in your hand, you know you've lost it," he says. His Meyer lemons, which were at their peak for harvest, are gone, and he figures he'll probably lose his Lisbons (the classic yellow lemon) in another week. Ditto for tangerines, blood oranges and honey tangelos -- all at their peak.
McClendon's Batavia lettuce is toast, the radishes froze, his sugar snap peas are gone (although the plant was saved), and with those lovely favas, it's about 50-50.
The good news is, his greens -- Tuscan kale and chard, for example -- are in amazingly good shape.
Like McClendon, Maya Dailey of Maya's Farm lost her radishes, and although she can see that her kale and chard are showing leaf damage, she won't know the extent of it for another week.
She says, "We know we'll have to rip out and replant the golden beets," but she's concerned about Phoenix's fluctuating temperatures. When it goes up to 70 degrees, then drops back down to freezing and swings back up again, Mother Nature sends mixed signals to the plants (grow, don't grow, grow), which leads to premature flowering and stunted growth.
McClendon echoes her concerns. "We started re-planting yesterday," he says, "and we hope to get back in the ring, but seeds take 90 days to germinate and soon after, we're into 100-degree temperatures."
But Dailey sees a silver lining in the freeze, pointing out that it knocked the bug population back and down. "Mother Nature kicked us in the butt financially but protected us another way," she says.
Dave Jordan (aka Dave the Eggman) of Two Wash Ranch has had his fair share of problems with the freezing temperatures as well. Although his kale, chard, garlic and turnips survived, he lost several thousand dollars in glacier lettuce, the frosty-looking succulent that was such a hit at the St. Francis booth at Devoured last year.
Jordan's biggest headache was protecting the chickens (called "meat birds") he processes and sells to local restaurants. Worried they couldn't survive without some extra heat, he invested nearly $500 this past week in heaters, propane and broken valves. He also lost around 50 birds, which represents one week's delivery to FnB. As all the farmers pointed out, there are dozens of hidden costs in a freeze such as the one we just had.
What will it mean for our local, farm-to-table restaurants? A lot less produce and possibly higher prices on what's left. McClendon says "Yuma missed the bullet, but Central and Southern California got hammered, just like we did. Everyone will feel it."
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