Early Spring Weather Requires Farmers to Stay Flexible

As a general rule, I’m always game for an early spring. But even I will admit it’s possible for spring to come too early.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Daniel Johnson

As a general rule, I’m always game for an early spring. Up here in northern Wisconsin, it’s possible for snowdrifts to hang around into May. March and April can be a tossup as far as temperatures go.

Sometimes, a mild March gets your hopes up for an early spring. Then April (snow) showers delay any thoughts of May flowers.

But even I will admit it’s possible for spring to come too early. And when spring hits unexpectedly soon, you have to be ready to adapt to the conditions and change your plans every time the weather throws you a curveball.

One for the Books

Up here on my farm, the spring of 2021 has been one of the most unusual I can remember. It actually started with an abnormally mild winter. Aside from one short cold spell, temperatures stayed warmer than usual, and relatively little snow accumulated.

In many places, it never got more than a foot deep. This made it easy to maintain paths, trails and driveways all over the farm.

Then March brought warm temperatures to the fold, and all the snow melted in the blink of an eye. It melted so fast, it seemed to evaporate rather than turn to meltwater. Ground conditions, in turn, were remarkably dry for the time of year.

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“Perfect,” I said to myself. “I’ll fire up my garden tractor, hook up a wagon, and start cleaning up branches and debris from winter!”

Read more: Tree debris? Check out these 5 tips for dealing with the brush.

April Showers …

It was a good plan … in theory. But early April brought heavy rain to the fold.

I suppose I should be grateful it wasn’t snow. Around here, it’s not uncommon for April to interrupt spring by dumping one or two feet of snow in a single storm. But since the temperatures were far too warm for snow, the precipitation fell as inches of rain instead, sogging up the ground until I didn’t dare drive the garden tractor for fear of rutting up the fields and/or getting stuck in the mud.

“No problem,” I told myself. “I should prune my young fruit trees while they’re still dormant.”

I put on rubber boots, slogged through the soaking-wet fields, and marched up to the high ground of my orchard. There, I discovered that the sustained above-freezing temperatures had prompted my trees to throw caution to the wind. They adopted an “early bird catches the worm” mentality.

All the buds were swelling, and leafing out seemed inevitable. So I quietly canceled my pruning plans.

Eventually, the ground began to dry out again, but by this time the grass was growing so ambitiously it really needed to be mowed. Mowing grass in April is practically unheard of around here. But I tried (once again) to go with the flow and fire up my garden tractor for the season.

Read more: Be careful where you store your farm equipment over the winter!

Machine Woes

In the past, I have explained the importance of parking machinery in suitable locations during the fall, so they’re easily accessible come spring. But even best-laid plans can go awry on occasion.

The garden tractor was parked in a garage bay, blocked by an aging farm truck. Unfortunately, the farm truck’s battery was too weak to start the engine, and that’s when I discovered that my battery charger had (for no apparent reason) stopped working.

Thus, truck and tractor both stayed put until I could purchase a new battery charger, and the grass remained untouched.

At this point, I could have changed gears and used a utility tractor (like my trusty John Deere Model 40) to pull a wagon around and get some tree branches cleaned up. But no sooner had I shifted my focus from the garden tractor than temperatures plunged and a snowstorm blew through. It dampened the ground again, slowing the growth of grass and tree buds alike.

May Flowers?

As I sit writing this, I have to chuckle at the unpredictable nature of early spring weather. I’ve actually made a lot of progress in many directions. I’ve done a lot of garden work, prepping raised beds for spring planting. I’ve weeded and trimmed trees around the farm.

And I even got the garden tractor going, after the new battery charger brought the farm truck back to life.

But I haven’t actually used the garden tractor yet. Because five days ago, there was a light snowstorm. And three days ago, freezing rain left the ground covered in ice for nearly 24 hours.

Yesterday was bright and sunny, true. But today it rained heavily, and there’s a lot of standing water in the fields.

That’s the nature of an early spring. The grass might be growing, the trees might be leafing out, and we might be getting a lot of spring work done. But March and April like to tease us, mixing their promises of warm temperatures with the cold reality that it’s still too early to count on consistent conditions.

Unless you stay flexible, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to outwit the wild weather.

In the end, I’m still happy spring came early. But I’ve definitely seen enough of these April showers. Bring on the May flowers!

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