A Hard Frost

We recently had our first hard frost of the season. It arrived with all its season ending finality, rendering most of the field vegetables we work with dead. Once the acute, but fleeting disappointment, which accompanies the loss had abated, I realized I was already looking forward to next season. It dawned on me then, that something I dread every year also fills me with hope. A hard frost is kind of an amazing thing. A real “the king is dead, long live the king” moment. Continuity with a built-in reset button. An end to last season, the ascension of next season. Our lives could use a hard frost.

For those of you who may not be familiar with what a hard frost is, let me briefly sum it up. When the temperature drops to about 28 degrees, the water in the cells of most vegetable plants expands as it freezes. The expansion ruptures the cell walls, resulting in the plant’s death. Yes, I’m over simplifying, and yes different plants have different levels of hardiness, but this isn’t a biology class. Any farm, in any climate across the world that gets cold, deals with this cycle every year. You start each season aware that temperatures will inevitably drop, plants will die, and the season will end. Like your own mortality you know it’s coming, but you don’t know when, and you don’t want to think about it. You know around when it should happen, but every year is different and the exact moment is impossible to predict. It may be early by a few weeks, it may be later than expected, or it may just show up on time, you just never know.

When the hard frost comes, you’re done, full stop. The season is over. Until that moment, you do everything you can to prolong the season, protect your plants, and continue to harvest as much as you can. You fight futilely against it, you fear its arrival, but when it inevitably forces an end, it’s very liberating. No sooner does it arrive than you find yourself planning for next season; mentally accounting for what worked and what didn’t. You take stock of which fields produced, and which didn’t. Where was there disease? Where did plants thrive? Which crops grew well and which struggled? Which crops sold well, and which ended up in compost? What sales channels worked, what didn’t? Did we make enough money to get us through the spring? How can we manage risk next season?

Filled with hope you pull the seed catalogs out, the crop plans, the planting calendar, and begin to tune the possibilities of next season. Mother nature’s forced restart is an amazing gift. Other occupations don’t tie you to the seasons like farming does — outside of farming, the days, weeks, months, and even years can run together in a blur. The fluorescent lights of an office obscure any trace of seasonality, and it’s easy to let one thing bleed into the next, without stopping to assess successes and failures, without pausing to plan. What a gift it is to be forced to stop, sit still, analyze, enjoy your successes, own your failures, plan, and hope. As a farmer, you’re constantly wrestling for control over the uncontrollable — rain, disease, nutrients, health, temperature, sunlight. But the first hard frost humbles. It reminds us of how powerless we are. Unexpectedly it brings serenity, and then springs hope. In an instant every season, the slate is wiped clean and you begin again. So, here’s to 28 degrees and all the warmth it brings.