Greenhouse owner calls last frost date with uncanny accuracy. Here's his secret.
ASHEVILLE - When the wind comes barreling down Mount Mitchell, it bears down hard on the South Toe Valley, bringing with it whatever weather lingers near the summit.
On May 10, that wind brought sustained freezing temperatures to Open Ridge Farm, but owner Gretchen Farrell was prepared.
That's because Wade McCourry, the second-generation owner of Troy's Greenhouse in Burnsville, predicted the frost back in February.
"I wrote those dates down, and thank god we listened," Ferrell said.
And it's no lark: McCourry has predicted the last frost date most of the time for at least 44 years.
"I've been doing this a long time," said McCourry, who will turn 62 in summer.
'Wisdom beyond smartphones'
Before McCourry was born, his father opened Troy's as a variety store, two years later adding a greenhouse.
McCourry grew up in that greenhouse, soaking up the regional wisdom from the farmers who came to buy plant starts, seeds and soil.
"All these farmers were older guys, with wisdom beyond smartphones, newspapers and The Weather Channel," said McCourry.
The secret to predicting the last frost is simple enough, but requires closely watching the skies, and no one does that better than the men and women whose business is so affected by the weather.
"If it thunders in February, mark that date down for May," McCourry said.
Then, watch the week around the corresponding May date for plunging temperatures.
Indeed, nearly 5 inches of rain fell on the area between February 5-10 according to National Weather Service data, with some thunderstorms also popping up during that time.
February storms are not uncommon, David Easterling, director of the National Climate Assessment Technical Support Unit, part of NOAA's Center for Weather and Climate in Asheville, said during that stormy week.
More:Update: flooding, road closures continue. Snow in high elevations.
More:Answer Man: Asheville High ROTC program going away? February thunderstorm?
"If you have relatively warm, moist, unstable air — air that is warmer than the air above it — that has a tendency to rise, and especially when you have a cold front giving the air a push up," he said.
That weather pattern, not unusual for late winter, can produce lightning, thunder and precipitation.
McCourry knew before the NWS
Of the 44 or so times thunderstorms have popped up in February that McCourry recalls, he's predicted the corresponding freeze all but 12 times. Even when it didn't freeze, it was cold enough the weather was notable, he said.
McCourry tries to warn the eager customers who snap up plants as soon as the spring hits.
More:Specialty farms, hit 'hard and fast' by coronavirus shutdowns, adjust to massive losses
More:Can small farms survive in the era of 'Big Ag'?
"The first warm weekend in March they go wild, and I want to try to hold them back," he said, laughing. "A lot of them say they don't believe in that voodoo, and the next time they come in they ask me about the thunder."
Farrell visits Troy's to buy seed potatoes, onions and soil amendments, and also to take in a little of McCourry's wisdom.
"And back in March he mentioned, 'Oh, be sure to look out for the week of May 6-13,'" she said.
On McCourry's word, Farrell held back on putting tender plants in the ground, but wondered if she'd made the right decision, especially with such a warm March.
Even the National Weather Service's 10-day forecast didn't show a May freeze up until a few days before it hit, she said.
But on May 10, freezing temperatures settled into the farm around 11 p.m., and didn't let up for the next eight hours.
Comfort in generational wisdom
Thanks to McCourry, the farm was prepared, with double row covers over tender lettuces, potato plants safely buried in their hills and other tender plants practically rootbound but warm in the greenhouse.
In part owing to bizarre microclimates in the region, not every farmer fared so well.
Though temperatures at Open Ridge fell to 32 that night, a farmer just two miles away saw temperatures dip lower.
"I asked around, and valley lows ranged that night anywhere from 24-32," Farrell said. "Some had light frost, and another friend in her greenhouse just had one layer of plastic, and her tomatoes all got burnt."
Ferrell has farmed her land in the South Toe Valley since just 2012, and pays close attention to what her neighbors have to say about the weather, particularly those who've been in the area for generations.
"I always listen to what they say to us," she said. "Some things are changing, of course, so there's some sort of comfort knowing that certain rhythms in nature are still the same, that there is some wisdom still."
Neighbors pull together to help
A 40-mile drive to the west, though a fraction of that distance as the crow flies, neighbors helped Anna and Paul Littman's Ivy Creek Family Farm from freezing over, gathering more than 300 paper bags in four hours to cover tender tomatoes.
Whitney Hibbits, a customer and friend, gathered about 90 bags in 40 minutes when the growers exhausted their initial supply and realized they were short.
"It's people like Whitney that enable farms to make it through tricky challenges like COVID-19 and multiple hard frosts in May," Anna Littman said. "So many other neighbors offered tarps, heaters, and really any help we could have dreamed of."
McCourry may lose sales when he warns customers not to plant so early, but he also puts people above his bottom line.
He said the memory of his father, a minister for 66 years, and his mother, who always tried to help everyone, inspire him to do the right thing.
"I don't want people to get their stuff killed during this pandemic," he said. "I want to help, which is why I've kept my prices down about at wholesale."
McCourry, who sells seeds, flowers and vegetables including 48 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, might think about raising prices down the road. But not yet.
"I'll make it up somewhere," he said.
Troy's Greenhouse is at 30 Cherry Lane in Burnsville.
Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.
Read more: Subscribe to the Citizen Times here. Subscribe to my newsletter here.