“What does a farmer do in the winter?” I hear this question all of the time from friends, family members, and many of the guests who pass through Stony Point Center. While it’s true that winter is a much more relaxed time of year for farmers in general, this winter I have found myself much busier than I had anticipated over the past few weeks. Here’s a window into the work of a farmer in the middle of winter.
Time for Study
This winter I had the opportunity to attend two of the annual winter agricultural conferences that are held in New York State. In December I was at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in nearby Pocantico Hills, New York for the 7th annual National Young Farmers Conference. There I heard a variety of experienced farmers share their expertise on topics such as small-acreage vegetable production, winter growing strategies, building a mission-driven farm, and greenhouse plant propagation. The National Young Farmers Conference was particularly encouraging because I had the opportunity to meet so many other young folks from across the United States who are dedicated to sustainable agriculture in their local communities.
Just a few weeks ago in January, Matt and I were both able to attend the annual winter conference put on by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York thanks to a scholarship program they offer to young and beginning farmers. It was my third year attending this conference and it was as good as ever, with inspiring keynote addresses and helpful practical workshops. Matt was able to expand his knowledge of food preservation at a canning and fermented foods workshop and came back with a list of cold-tolerant kale and lettuce varieties that we’ll be trying this year after a four-season production workshop. Meanwhile, I was learning from farmers and research scientists about topics ranging from chicken egg production, beekeeping, “urban micro-livestock,” and biological control for plant disease and pest problems.
On the last day of the conference, Matt and I attended a workshop together called “Forest Mushroom Production.” Based on what we learned, we will be setting up a mushroom growing operation this spring to cultivate a few different varieties of mushrooms. It’s an investment for the future, though, as we will not likely have any mushrooms to harvest until the summer of 2016.
Time for Planning
In the past few weeks I have also been pouring over harvest data from the 2014 season in an attempt to improve our crop production and growing strategies from year to year. One of the things I immediately realized is that I need to keep better records of what happens on the farm on a daily and weekly basis during the hectic planting and harvesting seasons. I believe I now have the right system in place to help us keep track of plantings, harvest times, and all things in between: an old fashioned paper datebook. With improved record-keeping, I know we will improve our planning in the years to come.
Because we are still finding our way, so to speak, learning what grows well on our land and how much of certain crops we want to produce, I have found myself overhauling how I’ve approached the crop rotation and both early and late season plantings from last year to this year. It’s been such a pleasure to reflect on the season with Donna, our kitchen manager, and many other members of the kitchen staff about what crops and which varieties they would like to see grown here. Next year we’re all set to grow orange, purple, and red carrots, baby bell peppers, and some new kale varieties, along with a crop we’ve never tried before—sweet potatoes! The seed order (another time-consuming winter task) has been placed, and believe it or not, we will actually begin greenhouse seeding the week of February 16th.
Winter Harvests, Greenhouse Work, Composting, and Livestock Care
With all of the “indoor work” that I’ve been describing, we still have to keep up with a variety of tasks that continue to need attention in the winter. You may be surprised to hear that we are still harvesting a few different crops from our greenhouses despite the frigid temperatures. Although they are slow growers this time of year, we can harvest greens like spinach, kale, and arugula that stay warm under the layers of plastic and cotton row cover we protect them with every night. We are just entering the time of year when day length has increased enough that we are seeing new growth on a regular basis on these crops. We have also been able to harvest fresh carrots from the greenhouse that were planted way back in July. Carrots in particular have a much sweeter taste when they are harvested after a frost, and ours are no exception.
Other regular winter tasks include caring for our chicken flock, composting, and shoveling snow away from our greenhouses after winter storms. Even though this may not seem like much, I’ve come to the realization that everything just takes longer to do in the winter. Bringing water to the chickens every day means hauling a couple of gallons from the nearest indoor water source through the snow since all of our garden hoses are stored away for the winter. We have to collect eggs twice a day so that they don’t freeze on cold days, too. Buckets filled with kitchen scraps often have to be thawed indoors before they are transferred to the compost pile.
And the most time-consuming and exhausting task: greenhouse snow removal. After (and sometimes during) snow storms, our farm crew uses push brooms to clear snow from our greenhouse roofs because the roofs are not constructed to bear heavy loads. After this, with the snow piled up at the base of the greenhouses, we often have to remove the snow that has accumulated on the ground from the storm and what has been cleared from the roof because it both puts heavy pressure on the sides of the greenhouse and blocks the sun from low-to-the-ground crops like spinach. This snow removal often involves hours of shoveling, sometimes into wheelbarrows or sleds so snow can be piled far enough from the greenhouse so that there is room for the next storm’s snow to fall. I literally spent my entire day at work this past Tuesday shoveling snow to dig out the greenhouses.
So now you know—farming in the winter is more than sitting by a fire and watching snow fall out the window and imagining next year’s harvest season. There’s still plenty of work to be done!
Stay warm, everyone!