Agrophenology: Farming in Nature’s Image


By a ‘Pheno-Farmer’, David Abazs, Round River Farm

Here on our off-the-grid, family farm CSA organic vegetable homestead, located along the north coast of Lake Superior, we have planned each farming season by looking at a calendar and writing down which plant should be planted on which day. Now, with climate change, the calendar no longer knows when we should plant our crops!

For years, our calendar has recorded the same planting date for most of our crops. But one year our fields were snowless in early April. The next year, those same fields were snow covered until the middle of May. One thing for sure is that we cannot plant our crops in snow. Some years we can have a 100-day frost-free growing season. Other years, our season is much shorter. In fact, one year we had a frost on July 15th and another frost on August 17th, then a freeze on August 18th and 19th. So we had a 32 day frost-free season that year! With this unpredictable weather, using a calendar to determine when and what we should plant, simply doesn’t work.

Our family farm has begun to use phenological observations, based on the timing of the natural world, to determine when we plant our crops.

  • Instead of looking at a calendar to determine when I seed my onions, peppers, celery and parsley, I look for the arrival of the American Crow.
  • When the American Robin shows up and the first sap of the Sugar Maple flows, I seed my tomatoes, lettuce, chard and beets.
  • When the wild leaks emerge, the White Throated Sparrow sings and we see the first bumble bee, I plant my peas and spinach in our fields, and the carrots and scallions in our high-tunnel greenhouse.
  • When the Dandelion blooms, it’s time for the onions to be planted.
  • When the Marsh Marigold first flowers and the Oven Birds begins to sing, I plant the first Brassicas (broccoli, kale, cauliflower and cabbage).
  • I will never plant my corn before the first flowers of the June Berries emerge
  • Between the time the Hawkweed flowers and the first firefly flashes, with our short season in mind, I better have gotten in all of the hot weather crops like potatoes, squash, beans and cucumbers.

Even our new way of planting is not foolproof, but it provides clear advantages.

  • I spend more of my day observing the natural world than my computer or calendar. Spending more time, walking my fields, smelling the air, and looking at the timing of native species has some real lifestyle advantages, including my happiness.
  • The farming implications of these observations of native trees and flowers provide me with a glimpse of the spring conditions, helping to inform me about whether things are early or late, wet or dry. It clues me into how much sun have we had and what the direction of the wind is. Since our farm is only 1.5 miles from Lake Superior, with a water temperature that averages 38°F, wind speed and direction has a huge affect on our farm’s growing temperatures.

The calendar does not provide any new information as to when things will be safe to plant or how soon a crop might mature, but phenology provides me with the best indication of what to plant and when to plant.

We put this system together by cross-referencing 28 years of farm timing records of our seedling, transplanting and planting, along with the dates of first and last harvests. These  agricultural records mixed with the phenological records – when the Snowshoe Hare’s feet turn brown or when the first Robin show up, or the first drips of sugar maple sap fall into the buckets in the spring – provide our farm with the first template of this AgroPhenology system. These phenological records from our farm and the nearby Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, in combination with our agricultural records, have given me, the Pheno-Farmer, the best tools to farm “in nature’s image” and helps our farm grow an amazing quantity and quality of food!

5 thoughts on “Agrophenology: Farming in Nature’s Image

  1. melindahemmelgarn

    This is both beautiful and brilliant. And so timely with the push for big “T” technology and “science” by the folks who pretend to care at Monsanto. Make no mistake: this IS science, which is led by observation and inquiry. And I learned a new term: “agrophenology.” Thank YOU!



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