Roberta Dudas, Dudas Farms - Photo courtesy of Erie Times
Roberta Dudas has been farming since she was two. Having grown up on a farm she is very in-tune with the land and the weather, and how even subtle changes in wind direction, temperature, precipitation and especially the timing of all three can affect crops. Roberta grows sweet corn, tomatoes, potatoes, flowers, and more on the farm where she grew up, located just west of Erie, PA in the town of Fairview. She sells her produce on site, usually beginning in early July, just after the sweet corn ripens.
Roberta says that, “when I was younger I started writing down changes I’d see on the farm. The wind used to blow out of the west, but in the past few years, it has started blowing more out of the east and south. And more extreme changes in the snow and rain patterns are having an impact on the crops.”
A few of Roberta’s notes from 2016:
Winter/Spring - the beginning of the year started out dry, not a lot of snow.
Spring/Summer - I planted 10 acres of sweet corn in succession. However, temperatures in August were consistently in the 80’s, and because it was so warm, I lost about an acre and a half of the sweet corn.
Late Summer/Fall - it rained heavily in September and October, which caused all of my tomatoes to rot. On the other hand, the winter squash and melons did really well, most likely because of the warmer weather during the summer. The next-door neighbor planted about 20 acres of field corn but because of the extremely wet fall, it couldn’t be harvested. He had to wait approximately three weeks later than usual.
You can pick up some of Roberta’s fresh produce at her farm stand, located at 1955 Avonia Road, in Fairview, PA. Look for it to be open in early July!
Tim Burch, Burch Farms Family Market & Winery - Photo courtesy of Burch Farms
The 250-acre Burch Family Market & Winery is located north of Erie near the town of North East, PA. Tim Burch, a 6th generation farmer and his brother Doug run the farm and grow 70 acres of grapes, mostly Concord and Niagara, 50 acres of apples (13 different varieties), and 10 acres of peaches. The brothers have seen many changes to their farm and the land in their lifetimes.
Unpredictable weather is likely the greatest obstacle for any farmer, and for the Burch brothers, extremely cold temperatures in recent winters have been tough on their apples and peaches. Tim reflected that in the late 1970’s the winters in Erie County were rough, but it was typically because of large amounts of snowfall. Today we see extremely low temperatures, for extended periods of time, which has resulted in a loss of peach trees, apples, and stone fruits.
In 2012, the region experienced an extreme all-time low of 20 degrees below zero with 15 frost events. In the six generations of farmers tending to the farm, no one had ever experienced such an extremely low temperature. This extreme is an example of the changing climate, and of the challenges that farmers face.
When spring arrived and the land thawed, the Burch brother faced a harsh reality; they had lost four acres of peach trees, 60 acres of apples – 40 percent of the crop, and 30 percent of the grapes were lost.
But remember, these days the weather is unpredictable, and growing and keeping fruit can be tricky. It is truly a science all its own. The summer of 2016 was a great growing season with conditions perfect for apples. In fact, 40-50,000 bushels of apples were harvested that late summer and fall. The favorable growing conditions meant that the sugar content in the apples was high, but the acid was low, and the fruit itself was very mature leading into the winter when the fruit goes into cold storage. All of these variable conditions within the apples, and a relatively warm winter led to another loss; none of the apples in cold storage made it through the winter, they all rotted.
These examples remind us that we are at the mercy of the weather and that extremes are more and more frequent and can sometimes be devastating. The Burch brothers and many other farmers are diversifying their crops, rotating crops, and expanding their offerings by adding products like maple sugar, applesauce, homemade baked goods and wine, both to offer more for their customers but also to ensure that when extreme weather takes one crop – that another is right behind it. Visit Burch Farms online and on Facebook.
Wendy Elliott, Earth and Vine Farms in North East, PA - Photo courtesy of Earth and Vine Farms
Earth and Vine Farms was founded in 2008, offering a variety of pesticide free fruits, vegetables and herbs which are sold to local families, restaurants, and to members of their community supported agriculture (CSA). Wendy Elliott, owner, also offers customers the opportunity to learn more about farming and preserving techniques like freezing, pickling, jamming, preserving, canning, dehydrating, and more. Wendy says that the farm has special meaning for her.
“This land, this farm, has always been a very special place for me and my family; I grew up running through its fields, gathering apples off the ground and eating grapes right off the vine.” As the name suggests, Earth and Vine farms continues to offer Concord grapes along with a wide variety of fruits, veggies, nuts and herbs. Her fruit list includes blueberries, cherries, gooseberries, pears, cantaloupe, watermelon and rhubarb, and her vegetable offerings span a long list that begins with artichokes and ends with turnips!
The produce available at the farm is seasonal and based on Wendy’s research into what grows well in the region, and at what time of year. Timing is critical to Earth and Vine’s success. Crops are planted seasonally based on when they are most likely to thrive, with much consideration given to temperature, precipitation, available sunlight, etc. In business just under 10 years, Wendy says she plans to fine-tune her process, timing, and crops over time to work with the land and variable weather conditions. Visit Earth and Vine online and on Facebook
Andy Muza, Penn State Extension Educator - Photo credit: Erie Times-News
Andy Muza, Penn State Extension Educator, whose expertise include viticulture (grapes), commercial fruits & veggies, and tree fruits. Andy works with farmers throughout the region and state by providing guidance and materials to help them better plan for changing climate conditions, frequent & extreme weather events, and how to recover when the weather goes awry.
He assists farmers with viticulture techniques in the field, researches pest management solutions, and coordinates programs to assist farmers. A particular passion for grapes and viticulture, Andy works with growers in Erie County to improve conditions and to treat diseases and other pests. His research into integrated pest management (IPM) techniques to reduce grape berry moth damage was recognized by the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program, who awarded Andy with the Excellence in IMP award. Andy knows a thing or two about grapes, and that is a good thing because the grapes are one of the largest industries along Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie shoreline.
As a panelist at the summit, Andy shared his knowledge and details about a program developed to help PA grape growers. Through the PA Vines program, administered through the Erie County Conservation District, PA grape growers can access educational materials, research information, and apply for grant assistance. The coordinators have also developed a guide and self-assessment to help growers identify and incorporate sustainable management practices. The guide and the assistance offered through the program can help growers to not only become more sustainable but to also improve their bottom line by growing smarter.
Read Andy’s blog about the grape berry moth