We did it - we made it to 2022! That feels like a feat in itself, but the new year started with a “hold my drink” attitude by giving us a big snowstorm. Just three days in and the skies opened, dumping a good 10 inches of wet, heavy snow and blanketing the land. From 4 am until 10 am, the farm looked like a scene from "Alive" (I’m just glad we didn’t lose power and have to eat each other). Over the past two years of adaptations and overusing the word pivot, the anxiety over what is out of my hands has worn down to a more manageable level. Maybe it took these years of turmoil for me to settle into a farmer mentality of only worrying about what we can control and not over-thinking what we can’t.
Since I have greenhouses and high tunnels, the stress that snow brings is almost crippling. Our houses are huge investments that we have worked so hard for but being nothing more than some steel pipes and plastic, the weight of even a little snow can buckle an entire house roof and destroy whatever crops may reside inside. Before I was a farmer, I worked in greenhouse sales and I think I am still a bit traumatized from all the phone calls about collapsed structures from growers post-snowstorm. It’s a scary challenge of growing in houses, and once I knew I was taking on when we put up our first structure. If you are going to grow in a tunnel you have to be prepared for the snow removal battle - it’s non-negotiable. The year began with the chaos of a winter storm but I applied the same thought process as everything else we've managed to date to lessen my anxiety and felt okay powering through the murk.
The second I saw the weather notifications calling for a big snow on Sunday night, I started assessing my situation. The day was beautiful, topping out in the mid-60s but the drop was coming and it was going to arrive in the middle of the night. We needed to fill propane tanks, find and stage snow removal supplies, and make sure the team knew it was taken care of without any expectation of risky travel to work on Monday (we are on a gravel road that doesn’t get much attention from the highway department). We have 7 growing structures and I would need to make a plan to care for them during the storm solo while also locating all the kids’ boots and mittens. My husband wouldn’t be home and snow means my family wouldn’t be able to get here to help either. I would have to do this part myself.
Once I had a pretty good assessment of the situation, I started listing out what would need to be done to prepare. I only had one good day and daylight was burning. I took the kids out to enjoy an unseasonably warm Sunday, picking up lingering toys from the yard, collecting empty propane tanks, and staging all the shovels, ice melt, and supplies I could think of. The kids laughed and joked as we pulled out snow shovels in t-shirts and bare feet. Virginia weather is weird! We caravanned to the corner store and filled up all of the propane tanks I had collected, ate hotdogs, and went home to set up our plan.
When my husband came home exhausted from work on Sunday night, he found me nose deep in the weather radar doing my best to predict the exact arrival of precipitation. I usually lean hard on him to help with snow removal and cross my fingers it doesn’t come on Saturdays, Sundays, or Mondays when he is gone for work. That wasn’t the case this time. Together, we went over the quirks of the heaters, the flow of removal that has worked well for him in the past, and things I may not have thought of. His insight saved me so much time and frustration in retrospect. The kids were making snowman plans and collecting the ingredients for snow cream and I set my alarm for an early 2:30 up and ‘at em time.
Plan in Action
When the alarm went off, I leaped out of bed still half asleep to peer out the window and saw… nothing. Back to bed? Well, who can sleep when you know at any moment the heavens are about to open up with an undetermined amount of white stuff? Not me! I was up, so I started the coffee and checked the radar again. I had all my winter layers and boots with a flashlight staged by the door. Around 4 am when my husband was preparing his truck for a snowy drive to work, it began to fall - HARD. I raced (in my fuzzy bathrobe, the adrenaline made me forget the staged insulated coveralls) to the farthest house on the farm and began to implement my plan. I turned on temporary patio heaters in our big tunnels and raced around in the dark to make sure the howling wind hadn't blown open any of our buildings or houses. You would be surprised at how fast you can cover a 20-acre farm, in the dark, in the wind, in the middle of a snowstorm. As I would leave one house to move to the next, the red glow of the heaters in the houses I had visited radiated in the dark. Steph said it looked like a portal to hell when I sent her a picture but to me, it was a visual of my emergency preparation plan in action.
Our seeding house and the FedEx house are both heated structures so during my round, I popped in the houses to up the temperature by a few degrees to help melt whatever landed in the next few hours. While the cost to have permanent heat in a greenhouse is ridiculously high, weather events like this make it oh so worth it. These houses were barely on my radar which was a good thing since there were three 26’ x 96’ tunnels that I was sweating bullets over.
As the sun tried to come up in the blizzarding effects of the storm, it took twice as long to light the land and see what I was dealing with. A total whiteout. From inside my home, the flurry of snow continued outside, barely breaking enough for me to see the landscape. I couldn’t tell how heavy it was, how much it would drift, or even how many inches we were up to. It was making my throat tighten just watching it. So I stopped. I pulled the shades, cranked the living room fireplace, and pulled out a board game for the kids and me. I set a couple of alarms on my phone for every hour and a half to do a patrol but otherwise, I couldn’t control it so I wasn’t going to let it control me.
When the alarm when off, I re-layered up with my Carhartt’s and boots and went to check on the houses with a push broom in hand. The temporary heaters were a total lifesaver. We used this method for the first time last year and were wildly impressed with how much time and effort it saved us from having to brush snow off the top of our Very High Houses (I’m short so all the houses feel like 100ft at the peak, I think they are actually closer to 20ft). The heaters were moved twice during the storm down the middle of the house and provided just enough warmth to keep the snow from piling up. The crops closest to the heater were fine and no warmer than plants much farther away. I also watched the plastic above the heaters because I didn’t want a melted hole, but that too proved to not be a concern. The heaters did no damage and a lot of help. It took me 15 minutes per house to lightly bump the ceiling from the inside with my broom, causing any chunks to slide away. It was the fastest snow removal I’ve ever had on this farm and that was with just me doing it! I don’t know exactly how warm it kept the houses as I didn’t bother to check the thermometers in the dark, but I do know it kept it above freezing. We stage bottles of water in our houses to see if they freeze solid or even develop a top layer of ice. The bottles in the houses with heaters never began to form ice.
Around 10:30 the snow came to an end. The kids took two hours to dress up for about 30 seconds of snow-filled fun and I enjoyed another pot of coffee. The houses were fine and for the first time ever as a tunnel-growing flower farmer, I was able to enjoy the snow. I checked in with our team who was enjoying a snow day at home, sent them funny update pictures, and soaked in all the beauty that freshly fallen snow provides. I took pictures of the beauty and enjoyed the crisp air as I tracked around the farm. I circled back to the high tunnels to turn off the heaters. Literally, no snow on the houses and it melted enough that when it slid off it didn’t pile up on the sides (side pressure can also buckle a tunnel so you have to worry about what comes off the top and piles along beside the structure). I made sure to re-cover all our tunnel plants with frost blankets as we continue having low temps the coming week and inspected the heated house seedlings and flowering greenhouse crops (my personal oasis to combat the winter blues).
Once the snow event had passed and the novelty wore off, I sat down at my desk to write out a new list. What worked, what didn’t, what did I learn, what did I observe? It was still as fresh as the snow in my mind, thus the perfect opportunity to recap. Last year we figured out how to use the patio heaters to help clear snow. This year I expanded on that by figuring out the correct placement in the house to maximize the heat efficiency. I wrote out our snow removal process and while it may sound basic, writing it down once means I won’t have to explain it a million times over when I need to lean on others to help. I wrote out in an ideal world what would happen in a big snow event if I had everything I ever wanted at my disposal. Once I know what that would look like I can begin to work toward what I need to make it possible. Better shovels, scheduled hands to help, where to make the best use of our snow blower, more temporary heaters… My list of ideas and wants is long and it might take a few seasons to make these goals a reality, but the vision is there.
Relax and Exhale
This is the first time I've ever done this part. While relaxing may look different for you and me (responding to grower emails and researching sowing questions are relaxing to me okay?!) I've come to realize that this is an important part of dealing with any situation. Coming to terms with doing all that you can and accepting that it’s enough. This snowstorm went well, but what if it hadn’t? What if we had lost a house to crushing snow? Time would march on, the next day would come, and we would still need to exhale, let it go, and be okay with knowing we gave it our all. The “what-ifs” in life can be endless and aren’t going to provide peace. Focusing on doing our best and not the end result is a much harder lesson to chew on. Learning how to assess, prep, plan, reflect and relax, and move on is a part of the journey of life and flower farming. If this is the first lesson of 2022 I can’t wait to see what else I pick up along the way.