While students celebrated two consecutive days of canceled classes after a blizzard hit New Haven earlier this month, interns at the Yale Farm scrambled to rescue their winter crop from the storm’s path.
The snowstorm that struck New Haven on Feb. 8 collapsed one of the farm’s three high tunnels (metal-framed structures that shield crops from the elements), and the damage will limit planting and harvesting capacity for the rest of the winter season. Farm Director Mark Bomford said in a Sunday email that the staff plans to rebuild the damaged structure before the spring, but reconstruction will leech off of the farm’s budget. Although the farm received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service to build a new high tunnel, Shizue Rocheadachi ’15, the farm’s student manager, said that the farm will instead use the funding to reconstruct the collapsed tunnel.
“We were all blown away by the impact of the storm,” Rocheadachi said. “It was beyond what any of us had conceived.”
Student interns had attempted to prepare for the storm by ensuring that all doors to the high tunnels were closed, preventing crops from being exposed to the snow. Farm Coordinator Jeremy Oldfield said volunteers stayed on the farm until after the storm hit on Friday evening, knocking fallen snow off the high tunnel roofs. Rocheadachi and farm intern Justine Appel ’15 planned to dig out the high tunnels from under the snow the next day, but the roof caved in under the weight of the snow before they could arrive on Saturday.
Rocheadachi said she was surprised that the tunnel collapsed because she said it had been constructed more recently than the other tunnels. The tunnel housed spinach and greens that volunteers planned to sell at a local farmer’s market, she added, and Oldfield said the farm staff were only able to salvage two-thirds of the already harvested greens.
Bomford said he hopes to have the tunnel repaired by the spring planting season, which begins in April, but Rocheadachi said she is concerned the construction will be delayed when students leave campus for spring break.
Though volunteers are disappointed that they will not be able to add a fourth high tunnel to the farm this spring, Rocheadachi said they are keeping the problem in perspective, particularly given the damage the storm has caused to other farms in the area. Common Ground, a local New Haven farm, only had one high tunnel and it collapsed during the storm, Rocheadachi said. On farms across Connecticut, tunnel collapses could lead to major problems including a shortened growing season, a late start for seedlings and a lessened supply for vendors, leaving a gap in the local marketplace, Yale Farm Events and Outreach Coordinator Jacqueline Lewin said.
“We’re a teaching farm, so it’s not as if anyone is going to go hungry because of the tunnel’s collapse,” Rocheadachi said. “We’re taking this as a learning experience, even though we are losing a lot of valuable time that we could have used for planting.”
In recent years, the Yale Farm has invested in structures that protect crops from weather damage, Bomford said. Prior to Hurricane Sandy, volunteers built temporary barriers around the farm’s tunnels to prevent them from being damaged by the wind. The farm emerged from the hurricane untouched, save a few artichokes that died and some fencing that was damaged by fallen trees. Many of the precautions made for the hurricane were still in place when the blizzard hit this month.
Though the Yale Farm staff works to protect its structures and equipment before storms like Hurricane Sandy, Appel said the farm staff have not developed a general procedure for responding to severe weather conditions.
“A garden like ours is such a dynamic piece of land that bracing ourselves for severe weather usually turns out to be more creative and on-the-fly than following a certain predetermined procedure,” Appel said.
Weather problems like the blizzard can be helpful, Oldfield said, in allowing student managers to identify problems in farm infrastructure that can be addressed to prevent future storm damage. Bomford said volunteers are currently working with the Yale Office of Sustainability and students at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies to improve the farm’s stormwater management system, which will prevent any damage from flooding in the future.
Despite the structural issues that the blizzard created, Bomford said the snow might make the crops sweeter in the spring, since plants tend to produce sugar in cold weather.
“While the crops grow more slowly, you get some flavors during the cool weather that you don’t find in the summer,” Bomford said.
In addition to spinach, the collapsed high tunnel also housed arugula, tatsoi, golden frill mustard and several other greens.