Warm Winter: A Blessing and Curse for Campus Farm

Heavy rains and warm temps make for an odd growing season

Heavy December rains caused flooding at the Duke Campus Farm. Photo courtesy of Emily McGinty.
Heavy December rains caused flooding at the Duke Campus Farm. Photo courtesy of Emily McGinty.

After a December that set state records for warm temperatures and drenched the Triangle with more than six inches of rain, the Duke Campus Farm is slowly returning to a normal winter routine.

But that’s not without unexpected outcomes – both good and bad.

While flooding took place that left standing water on top of soil for weeks, raised growing beds still allowed some crops to thrive and even extended the growing season for staff. One odd result was a bounty of Oyster mushrooms that are typically only harvested in the spring and fall.

“We wouldn't ever expect to harvest mushrooms around Christmastime, but the perfect combination of rain and warmer-than-normal temperatures seems to have spurred them on,” said Emily McGinty, fellow at the Duke Campus Farm. “We've heard from our mushroom workshop participants that they're delighted, if confused, by the earlier-than-promised arrival of fresh mushrooms."

According to the National Weather Service, December’s average temperature recorded at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in December was 56.1, two degrees higher than a previous record set 126 years ago. The month also saw 6.07 inches of rain, three inches more than historical norms.

The main reason crops at the farm survived the rainfall was because McGinty, farm manager Saskia Cornes and volunteers maintain raised plant beds of 4 to 6 inches. Water and mud may cover work boots as they walk up and down rows, but it can’t get high enough to drown crops.

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Oyster mushrooms on inoculated logs. Photo courtesy of Emily McGinty.

Even still, the rain does have a negative impact. When the farm’s ground gets too saturated, the force of the water pushes air out of the soil, compacting the earth. That can impede root growth and decrease a plant’s ability to soak up nutrients and water. The situation can be made doubly worse by having too many people on the soil at one time.

“January is one of the busiest months for our volunteer work days, so we have to closely monitor a balance of bringing people out to the farm, but not compromising our soil ecology,” McGinty said. 

Still, unseasonable weather hasn’t been completely problematic.

Cover crops like rye, winter pea and crimson clover have had a longer timeframe to spread, boosting soil health and germinating crops into the New Year. Warmer days also offered a longer timeframe for farm staff to winterize the space and harvest collections of kale, spinach and collards that are more bountiful than past winters. Sales of the vegetables go to Duke Dining, which uses Duke Campus Farm produce in dining halls. 

“Our carrots and collards get sweeter after frosts come because their starches convert to sugars,” McGinty noted. “It’s not a total bummer to hit winter weather.”