Bean There: Weathering Climate Change

The cat and I huddled under the blankets in the dark as the wind outside made the whole house shudder. The power had been out for eight hours and would stay out for several days or longer for over 80% of the province, according to my battery-operated radio. “It’s okay,” I told my feline friend, though privately I was fervently praying that I had hammered enough nails into the rafters when I built the house. I like to think of myself as an adequate carpenter but Hurricane Dorian was putting my confidence to the test.

Storm clouds at dusk, West Lampeter Township, Lancaster County. (Photo by Nicholas [CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Storm clouds at dusk, West Lampeter Township, Lancaster County. Photo by Nicholas CC BY 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons

It was a trying growing season, all told. June had been cold and wet, though without the late-killing frost of the year before. I had planted the beans as usual on June 10th, more out of faith than any actual hope that the weather would improve. The same went for setting out the squash plants at the beginning of July. You’re supposed to wait until the weather settles but these days, what does that mean?

July and August were adequately warm with just enough rain and we all felt relief as crops began to ripen. Everything was late but it was growing. I looked forward to the first heavy crop from my pear trees. Pear trees are shy to bear with poor pollination in the cool Cape Breton springs, but this year, I thought, I‘d be able to eat my fill. And I can eat a lot of pears.

Blackberries were heavy on their canes and nearly ready to be picked. Last year, I put five gallons in the freezer. I had planted a special growout of the Iannetti pole beans for the new Seed Library in Sydney. I wanted to offer these beans with their Cape Breton immigrant history for the inaugural meeting next spring. We get a lot of wind at the best of times so I had strapped their trellis to the south side of my house with old tractor fanbelts.

 

But back to me and the cat cowering in bed. The next morning, the wind was still strong but no longer shaking the world. The radio warned everyone to stay home while the crews cleared downed trees off the roads and power lines, so I walked the farm to take inventory of the damage. Surprisingly, I didn’t lose any trees. I have never liked planting apples on dwarfing stock and that reluctance had paid off. Some broken branches and a lot of fallen fruit – including my beloved pears – were the only toll in the orchard.

For the next few days, I diligently gathered up the windfalls and put them in the root cellar, hoping some would ripen enough to eat. Many apples cooperated but the pears, alas, rotted from the inside out. Don’t ask me how, but the plums still clung tenaciously to the tree and were harvested three weeks later without any fuss. The blackberries were a total loss, but most of the cultivated elderberries were salvageable.

Flooded farmland after Tropical Storm Lee, Campbell Hall, NY (Photo by Daniel Case [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Flooded farmland after Tropical Storm Lee, Campbell Hall, NY, 2011. (Photo by Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The vegetable garden did not fare as well. The fortified trellis for the pole beans had done its job, but the wind had ripped all the leaves off the plants. With the late start to the season, most of the beans were still too immature to properly ripen for seed. The bush beans, being so low to the ground and ripening earlier, did better, but the yield is way down. Just in case, I gathered tomatoes that were almost ripe and finished them off indoors. The seed quality won’t be as good but at least I will have seed. The squashes had their leaves torn to shreds but being mostly moschata, I had hopes that they would continue to ripen. A hard frost a week later would put an end to that. I gathered up the most promising then and fed the rest to the chickens.

This may sound like a litany of woe, but, except for the scale of the “weather events” as we call these things now, Cape Breton Island, sticking out into the North Atlantic, has always experienced a changeable climate. I am fond of telling how, after moving back from Ontario, open-pollinated seeds were the only kinds I could find that would adapt to the exigencies of the local weather. Their broader range of gene expression helped them succeed where the prima donna hybrids failed. What had been a small hobby of seed-saving turned into the mainstay of my operation.

I told a fellow board member of Seeds of Diversity about my farm. About the year we had exactly 62 frost-free days from July 4 to September 4. The year of the floods in 2011 when I wrote off all but two of my five acres of garden and worked it by hand, since the field was too wet for the lightest of equipment. I finished with the story of how the rope guiding me to the barn in winter had been buried in snow. The second rope I tied above it turned out to be hanging eight feet in the air when spring came. He looked at me carefully, possibly for signs of insanity. “Why do you farm there?” he inquired, clearly horrified. “Well, land is cheap,” I offered. “It would have to be,” he retorted.

 

I have learned to adapt. Seed-savers know to keep back at least a third of their stock seed in case of disaster. It only took a couple of times of having my over-optimism rewarded by a Mother Nature smack-down to convince me to follow that rule religiously. I put a lot of time into proper seed storage so that if I have to carry the seed over for an extra year or two, it will stay viable. I keep multiple years of saved seed carefully (possibly obsessively) labelled and catalogued in case a growout needs to be supplemented by older seed.

Planting by the calendar is chancy here. I look for certain trees and shrubs to bloom and give me the go ahead to plant. I have learned to be distrustful and hold some plants or seed back to make multiple plantings if I am not sure.

I try not to rely on any one variety or crop to produce my food for the winter and earn my living. This year, more than ever, I was glad of my many varieties of beans. It was surprising which rose to the challenge and which fell flat. Canadian Wild Goose and Tiger Eye will be the mainstay of my soup mix this year but the old faithful Turtle beans were too green to finish ripening properly. (Usually it is the other way around.)

Farm off of a country road in Quebec. (Photo by Andrew Pabon, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Farm off of a country road in Quebec. (Photo by Andrew Pabon, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

All 15 of my bean varieties have plenty of seed stock saved back from years before to ensure their continuance. We’ll just have to see which will be the winner next year. The tomato growouts didn’t do as well. The Rideau cherry tomatoes were the top producers as were the Sprint, but no sauce tomatoes for me. Tegucigalpa will have to have a growout again next year and even the Stupice were mainly good for relish.

Some growers try to hedge their bets by relying on costly infrastructure like greenhouses and high tunnels. Hurricane Dorian is making them rethink that strategy as they struggle to salvage what’s left. My carpentry skills are not perfect – the small entrance porch to my basement collapsed entirely and had to be dragged away with the tractor before I could get in and out that door. But the greenhouse attached to my house only lost a small panel and a few uprights needed reinforcing. Apart from growing basil in the summer, it is mainly used for the starts in the spring. I don’t even use row covers for main production – I’d just be covering the next county over.

Even for Cape Breton, the challenges of weather are now fluctuating wildly. We used to have a long cold snap at the beginning of February called the “fuarach,” Gaelic for cold, and could count on it blowing out around Valentine’s Day as the ocean currents shifted with the spring. Now we have winter systems we’ve taken to calling Alberta Clippers with swings in temperature from minus 15 to plus 15 in the space of 24 hours, usually accompanied by heavy rain and followed by a hard, cold north wind. They come through as often as once a week. Another reason I am thankful for my deeply-rooted fruit trees; so far, they have endured against the freeze-thaw cycling.

I came to farming through working with the older Gaelic-speaking men and women here. I had a lot to learn from them about planting and growing. Now I wonder what we will have to teach the younger ones in turn. Maybe just how to be quick on your feet. We’ll all have to be nimble to keep up in the years to come. A good stock of seeds will help with that.

 

 

Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.