The Big Freeze

Update: I’ve had some questions about availability.  If something shows in stock, it is in stock and you can order it.  I will still be adding more as I get everything cleaned and packaged.  The amounts available will definitely be smaller than usual, so I will probably sell out before spring, but I did save a lot of the crop that was for sale.

Update #2: If you want to help and you grow any of these crops, please take a look at my variety recovery page, which lists varieties that I have lost and for which there is some hope that someone else is growing them.

We had an unusually cold period of weather the last two weeks of December.  It was unprecedented both in the depth of the cold and the amount of time that it remained cold.  We hit a low temperature of 15 degrees and the daytime temperatures remained below freezing for four days.  Neither one of those conditions has occurred in the past twenty years that we have lived here.  We are about 200 yards from the ocean and can normally expect moderate temperatures even when it is quite cold inland.  Because of that, systems here are not built to withstand extremes.  Buildings are old and minimally insulated.  Pipes are buried three inches deep.  Nobody owns a snow shovel.  If we get a freeze, it almost never lasts more than a single night.  My growing practices similarly expect relatively moderate conditions.  I grow and harvest through the winter.  There is never a time when all of the crops are out of the ground.  When the forecast came that we would have a serious freeze, I had 80% of crops still in the ground and 72 hours to work with – during which it rained heavily.  I got a lot out, some into the house, some into our storage building.  I felt pretty good about this, since it looked like I would have more than enough for replanting and to satisfy existing orders, and I just had to gamble on whether the rest would survive.  The weather forecasts are rarely accurate here and predictions of freezing weather are almost always wrong, so that didn’t seem like a terrible gamble.

The forecasts weren’t wrong this time.  Things were going OK until we reached the coldest night on December 27th.  Between the time I last checked around 7PM and 9AM the next day, the heater died in our storage building.  This is where I keep harvested tubers, but also where I keep our tissue culture storage.  The stored tubers include not just what we sell, but all of the various breeding lines that I’m working on. I am still evaluating, but about half the tubers died.  Breeding lines were hit most heavily, since I harvest those first.  All of my in-progress breeding lines from the past couple of years were cleaned, bagged, and stored away.  Many of those bags are now soggy, full of dead tubers.  It is quite interesting to see how some bags survived right in between others that died.  Presumably those tubers had more aggressively converted starch to sugar or had other traits that made them more freeze resistant.  So, there will at least be something new to learn.  This is a difficult loss though, as there were a lot of things that I was really looking forward to growing again and for which I had already made plans.  A big part of plant breeding is living in the future and it is hard to lose that future, even when it is never what you imagine it will be.

The tissue culture storage contains backups of all our varieties, varieties that I have retired from the catalog, varieties that are in the process of disease cleanup, and varieties that are kept as sources of genetic diversity but rarely grown.  It also contains some of varieties that I am holding and/or working on for other people.  This was kept close to an outside wall and it was a total loss.  This is particularly heartbreaking, because of the huge number of things lost.  I lost 54 seed grown varieties of ulluco.  These were not varieties that I grew in the field or offered, because they were not high performers, but it was probably the largest collection of seed grown ullucos anywhere.  I also lost 21 heirloom ullucos that were in some stage of disease cleanup.  I will probably never recover most of those.  Similarly, I lost 25 seed grown mashuas and 7 heirlooms; 88 seed grown ocas and 14 heirlooms; 30 seed grown yacons and 11 heirlooms; 112 seed grown potatoes, 9 rare heirlooms, and 62 varieties that I was working on for other people.  The last particularly horrifies me, because I don’t know if the owners have backups in every case.  And those are just the major crops.  I lost a lot of other things as well.  It is hard to deal with the fact that I could just have had a backup heater.  We had a separate circuit.  There was no reason not to set up a second heater.  I am just not used to dealing with this kind of cold and it never really occurred to me that we would develop freezing temperatures indoors.  It feels stupid to say that now.  I have also been building a new lab with better storage.  If I had just gotten the work done, everything probably would have been fine.  That sucks.

Well, there’s no sense crying over spilled milk, as they say.  With farming, there is some kind of major setback almost every year and, if you can’t grin and bear it, it’s not the job for you.  I don’t have a time machine, so I have to live with my mistakes.  Many things were preserved.  It looks like I have enough of most catalog varieties to fulfill 2021 preorders, which is a relief.  I don’t appear to have lost any named varieties and those are the core of my breeding work, so I will start again.  Many of these plants are hard to breed, but I have done it before and I know that I can do it again.  So, I will start making new crosses and, a few years down the road, I will have built up my genebank again.  But, first, I am going to install a second heater.

11 thoughts on “The Big Freeze

  1. Marshall Chrostowski says:

    Bill, what a heart-breaking assault on your dreams and artful researches. Any way we your fans can help?

  2. Ottawa Gardener says:

    I’m so sorry that you experienced this. A big loss. Like you said, every blocked path illuminates potential new trails but still… It will be interesting to see what remains. I did have a big freeze – probably not as long – in my much smaller storage facility many years back – and was surprised what survived.

    • bill says:

      Yes, I remember that. It was awful to read about and I should have learned from it. But, as the joke goes, my learning style is generally “the hard way.” ;)

  3. Sean says:


    I have a great deal of admiration and respect for you. I find the work you do to be spectacular and fascinating, and the ideas you express through your blog are of much help and interest to me. You are an inspiration, and I am so sorry for your troubles this year. That said, I think your conclusion is exactly correct. You will adapt, you will restore what you can, and you will continue to grow. You are a true farmer. Thank you for all that you do.

  4. Cynthia says:

    Bill, so very sorry! When I moved from Portland, OR, to south central Montana I was unwilling to leave many of my land-race developments behind. I underestimated, and misunderstood the differences this area’s weather fluctuations. Horrifying and heartbreaking outcomes, as well. You’re awesome at what you do, and will continue to do! Keep up the good work! You’ve got a big fan club!

  5. Greg muller says:

    Wow, what a blow. I suspect you will have sharper focus and more streamlined systems second time round. Its been a weird weather year in Aust too.

  6. Suzanne says:

    I’ve lived in Western Washington most of my 77 years, and that cold spell was a big surprise.

    I had two nasturtium bushes — they were the size of hydrangeas. Overnight they turned to green slime.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    I can truly empathize with your loss. Our last “scheduled” frost is the latter part of March, so I lost all my early summer planting when we had a surprise frost in the second half of April. Please continue with your good breeding work, because the state of the store potato is getting more atrocious every season.

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