Many gardeners in Massachusetts look forward to getting their first flowers and veggies in the ground in March, but probably not this year. WGBH News Science Editor Heather Goldstone talked to Morning Edition Host Bob Seay about the toll this winter's cold and snow has taken on agriculture.
Seay: We're definitely getting a late start on spring, but were there impacts on agriculture during the winter itself?
Goldstone: In general, eastern half of the state more impacted than the west. Certainly, as you say, a delayed start to the growing season and that could mean reduced yields, particularly for famers looking to get in multiple plantings. The single largest impact so far was not the cold or snow directly, but all the cloudy and overcast weather. On a sunny winter day, a greenhouse can be balmy. Without the sun to warm them, it's a different story. Burning fuel for heat instead, which is an added up-front cost, also means delay in growth, which is lost revenue.
John LeBeaux is commissioner of the MA Department of Agricultural Resources. He comes from the nursery business, and says this kind of winter is worrisome.
And it's no small concern. Greenhouses and nurseries are the single largest component of agriculture in Massachusetts, accounting for almost a third of all agricultural revenues.
Seay: Orchards are also big business in Massachusetts. How have they fared, and what's the outlook for this summer?
Goldstone: Stone fruits, like peaches or cherries, are the biggest concern. They aren't as winter-hardy as, say, apples.
Commissioner LeBeaux says we could see a greatly reduced harvest this year.
Other growers say some low-hanging branches may actually have been insulated and protected by the snow, but they're still looking at a reduced harvest.
Apples and pears are tougher, but growers haven't been able to get in and do their usual winter pruning and clean-up work.
There's also some concern about damage from deer who may have taken to munching on the trees while the ground was inaccessible.
Also rodents, who will gnaw rings around the bases of trees underneath the snow. It's called girdling and commissioner LeBeaux says the excessive snow this winter put trees at higher risk than usual.
Seay: Speaking of sweet things from trees, what about maple syrup?
Goldstone:Maple syrup production requires warm days and cold nights.
Seay: We certainly haven't had many warm days.
Goldstone: No, we haven't. Plus, all the snow made it hard for producers to get in and tap the trees, so it's been a late, slow start. And once the sugar maples start putting out buds, the season is over. So there's some concern there.
Seay: How much will consumers be impacted by all of this?
Goldstone: No Massachusetts peaches or maple syrup. We can get those from elsewhere, but some people might notice.
Home gardeners are also getting a late start. Like Commissioner LeBeaux, I usually put my peas in the ground on St. Patrick's Day and I couldn't even see the ground in my backyard in mid-March.
Commissioner LeBeaux also mentioned something anyone with a lawn should be on the lookout for — a fungus called snow mold which gets its start under the snow and has a distinctive appearance.
Seay: I'm a little afraid to ask, but is there any good news here?
Goldstone: There is, and I'll get to that in just a second. But first, I feel like I should share Commissioner LeBeaux's big-picture perspective on this winter. He says most farmers are really taking this all in stride.
Seay: Well, that's comforting, I guess. What about that good news?
Goldstone: Massachusetts is the second largest producer of cranberries, and that's one crop that may have benefited a bit this year. I live a couple of streets over from bogs and we noticed this winter that they hadn't flooded them. Commissioner LeBeaux explained that's because the snow cover protected the plants, meant growers didn't have to go to the effort of flooding, and so far they have no reports of winter damage.
There's also the possibility that a cold winter could slow down some invasive pests, and not just on land, either. Scientists and environmentalists concerned about invasive species of green crab damaging marshes along the Massachusetts coast are hoping this cold winter might have put a dent in their populations.