EAST DUMMERSTON — Jack Manix and his farm crew spent hours and hours Wednesday getting ready for that night’s frost and freeze.
And it paid off.
Thursday morning, Manix, the owner of Walker Farm in East Dummerston, a vegetable farm, garden center and farm stand, could sigh with relief.
Temperatures across Windham County — like most of the state — dipped into the 20s, spelling doom for tender crops.
Manix said his crew of 14 people worked all day Wednesday preparing the rows of vegetables and strawberries already in the ground by spreading yards and yards of Reemay row cover — a polyester fabric that traps warmer air close to the ground and thus keeps the plant from freezing.
The only casualty that Manix reported Thursday was some green bean plants, which he admitted “were mush” once the sun came up. Farmers are experiencing a “roller coaster” of temperature changes, he said, with this April’s hot temperatures pushing plants ahead, which made them more vulnerable to the Thursday frost.
“We have to learn how to adapt,” he said.
The blueberry bushes are too unwieldy to cover, he said, and he was hoping for the best.
Manix said his strawberry crop, which had been covered with a heavier weight of Reemay because of the in-bloom strawberry sensitivity — had made it through with flying colors.
“I think we’ll leave it on through tonight. They say it will go down to 38, but you never know,” said Manix.
One thing in the organic farm’s favor was that it hadn’t planted its sweet corn crop yet, and thus it wasn’t burned by the cold temperatures, he said.
Walker Farm plants its 10 acres of sweet corn by using transplants, which gives the organic crop a big head-start on weeds, he said.
“We’ll do that tomorrow,” he said.
In Newfane, Joseph Dutton of Dutton Farm said temperatures hit between 20 and 22 degrees “on the straw” for its strawberry fields. He said there’s often a big difference in temperature between the ground and even five feet above it.
“It certainly was awfully cold,” he said.
The Duttons used overhead irrigation to counter the effects of the heavy frost, he said. The ice acts as a heat transfer and keeps the plants from freezing.
By mid-morning, the ice that had saved the 2023 strawberry crop had melted, he said.
Dutton said that so much depends on the mini-climates the fields and crops are in, and he said a well-watered plant (it’s been dry) survives frost more easily. Freshly plowed ground also is about four degrees warmer, he said.
He said without frost protection, it would have been devastating. Strawberry blossoms start freezing at 32 degrees, he said.
It’s too early to tell of the damage to his apple crop, he said. Any damage to the apples trees, which are in full bloom, will become apparent in a few days.
Vern Grubinger of Dummerston, a University of Vermont Extension Service professor, said Wednesday night’s temperatures did do damage, statewide.
“There is definitely damage out there, and some of it is obvious, further north especially, but it will take some time to assess the extent,” he said.
“Once we see black centers of strawberry flowers, browned blueberry flowers, that’s a bummer,” he said.
Grubinger said he had talked to a grower in Barton that morning, and they had recorded 24 degrees during the night. “That is not good,” he said.
“It was only 31 in Dummerston and the strawberries and blueberries look good, so far,” he said.
Grubinger said that while it was a notable frost, it is not unheard of.
“It has been a while since a frost this late, but it is well within the historical norm,” he said, dating back in his experience to 1970.
In Westminster, Paul Harlow, who runs one of the state’s largest organic fruit and vegetable farms, said he woke up at midnight to turn on the irrigation to save his strawberry crop.
“It was already 33 degrees,” Harlow said. Before the night was over, the temperature dipped to 24 degrees, he said, and he had to keep irrigating until 10 a.m., when the temperature finally rose.
Like other experienced farmers, Harlow said his losses were minimal. He said the irrigation saved between $20,000 and $30,000 worth of organic strawberries. You can tell pretty quickly if the strawberry crop has been damaged, he said, as the blossom turns black.
Likewise, he covered most of his sweet corn crop with Reemay, a fabric crop cover, but about an acre of corn was not covered and it got frosted.
“It looks pretty bad,” said Harlow, who like Manix now plants his sweet corn via transplants, rather than planting seeds directing in the fields.
He said as a result his sweet corn crop will be a week or so later.
Harlow said it’s typical for Vermont to get a frost in mid May, but he said the Thursday morning temperature was particularly low.
Much of the vegetables he grows are cold tolerant: lettuce, kale, beets and parsnips. “They’ll be fine, they weren’t affected,” he said. One crop that surprised him was his asparagus, which he grows primarily for the family’s farmstand “and my sister.”
About half of the asparagus looks affected, he said. It will recover, eventually, he said.
Harlow said he drove around Westminster Thursday morning and noticed that a lot of the invasive Japanese knotweed — the bane of gardeners and farmers alike — had been killed by the frost.
One specialty flower farmer, Chris Morrow of Olallie Daylily Garden in South Newfane, said the cold temperatures likely would have no lasting effect on his plants.
Some early varieties, which had already sent up flowering scapes, might have been damaged, he said.
But he said in his garden, he noticed that comfrey had been “quite affected” by the frost.
If there is any damage to his specialty daylilies, he said, it will be “superficial, and will grow out.”