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Organic Farmers Weather Cold Snap

This week's snow and subzero temperatures put stress on farmers and their animals, but there could be a sweet upside to the cold snap.

Dr-Hubert-Karreman-with-Piglets

Photo: Aaron Kinsman, courtesy of the Rodale Institute

Rodale Institute veterinarian Hubert Karreman shows off a litter of 13 piglets keeping warm under a heat lamp. The piglets were born on the institute's research farm in Easter Pennsylvania during this week's deep freeze.

It could have been worse.

Florida oranges seemed to dodge a bullet as temperatures fell just short of damaging levels. Blankets of snow protected much of the winter wheat crop. But nationwide cattle prices hit record highs for more than a week, in part because of the extra feed and fuel needed to keep animals fat and hardy.

The Organic Way

Organic producers said prevention and adaptability are key tools for weathering severe cold snaps, and may put them ahead of conventional growers.

“They can’t rely on a lot of animal health products to fill in if they have a problem,” said Harriet Behar, an organic specialist for the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service. “They’re always looking for ways to make their systems resilient enough to deal with any condition.”

She said while federal law requires farmers to use antibiotics and other medicine to treat sick animals, treated animals can’t be sold on the organic market. Farmers must do everything they can to head off sickness before it strikes. That means more comfortable and clean living conditions for their herd.

Giving animals the choice of where they want to be on a 24/7 basis is the key, not keeping them inside and confined all the time like conventional agriculture does.

Hubert Karreman, veterinarian for the Rodale Institute, said organic livestock producers don’t wall their animals off from harsh weather. Along with dry bedding and good food, fresh air and some exposure to the elements actually improve the health of animals. “If they can be outside, they should be outside,” he said.

“Giving animals the choice of where they want to be on a 24/7 basis is the key, not keeping them inside and confined all the time like conventional agriculture does.”

He said under conventional means, drugs are used preventatively to head off sickness that comes from living in close quarters.

“Keeping them inside under high densities, you need extra crutches to be continually successful.” Karreman added that in severe conditions like we’ve seen this week, most animals should be inside. Animals at the institute’s farm in eastern Pennsylvania got extra bedding and hot water to drink to help them weather the cold – though they ate outdoors.

Record Sweet Greens Ahead

There’s a tasty up side to the story. Harriet Behar with MOSES said for all vegetable growers, conventional and organic, the freeze slows harvesting, resulting in sweeter crops. Leafy greens and other hardy vegetables will go dormant to survive a deep freeze. If picked during that state, they will thaw and “pretty much turn to mush.”

But if left alone to thaw naturally, the plants will churn out sugar as a survival response to the cold. Over the next few days, as temperatures soar back to the balmy 30s and 40s, those tasty greens will end up in grocery stores and winter farmer’s markets this weekend.

“Oh my goodness spinach gets so sweet when it thaws out like that,” she said.

A perk for buying from small growers and veggie stands: you can ask farmers directly whether their leafy greens were picked after this week’s freeze.

“And consumers should say thank you for working so hard even through these cold days.”

Read More:

  • Frigid Blast Hits U.S. Midwest Farm Belt; Wheat At Risk (Reuters)
  • Skinnier Cows, Higher Prices: Extreme Cold’s Effect On The Cattle Market (Globe And Mail)
Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

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