Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Farming in winter

While attending a dinner party with friends and new acquaintances, someone asked us what farmers do in winter. My first thought was, "We get to eat what we've grown the rest of the year." Our flock of hens is still laying (12–16 eggs daily), we have horseradish yet to dig, and -- due to the mild weather so far -- we're still harvesting chard, kale, leeks, and fresh herbs. We have winter squash, onions, garlic, and potatoes stored all about the house and in the basement. We froze corn, edamame, plums, tomatoes, peppers, and more. The pantry is crammed full of stewed and juiced tomatoes, elderberry syrup, apple sauce, pickles, and hot pepper jam. We butchered our 24 roosters in October and put a half from one of our pigs in the freezer the next month. In December, a good friend shot a young buck on our land and on top of giving it to us, he provided a a full lesson in butchering and packaging, plus sausage making, to us and a kitchen full of friends. As if that weren’t enough in the counting blessings department, we have a terrific local resource here in Regional Access, through which we get great prices on bulk items like flour (from our friends at Farmer Ground Flour), oats, raisins, and other pantry fare. With such a full larder, we're enjoying sharing the bounty with our wonderful friends and planning for next year's adventures on the farm.

Getting back to the question at hand, I'm curious what kind of assumptions yield the question of what farmers do in winter -- besides eating well. I’ve often assumed people have some basic understanding of things that I take for granted: plant physiology, impacts of weather patterns, the business of farming, the effect of cheap food on farmers . . . But then some question or blank response reminds me that the particulars of farming are so foreign to so many people and I struggle with where to start in explaining something like what we do in winter.

To me, it seems fairly obvious that all of the tractor maintenance, repairs to the shed roof, tool sharpening, all of the deferred housekeeping and maintenance we put off during the growing season, and the myriad other chores we couldn't tackle during the busy days of summer now patiently await our attention. At least I assume they are waiting patiently, since they don't seem to fix themselves or go away... There's also the little issue of planning next year's farming effort. There are spreadsheets with varieties, planting dates, seed price, quantity, and row feet to be planted , as well as lists of which beds to plant, mulch, manure, compost, and cover crop, on what schedule. On Christmas Eve, we ordered 150 pounds of seed potatoes; the rest of our seed orders will have been placed by mid-January. There are still lots of decisions to make, but we have our major crops selected and we know where each will be planted in the field. We’ll start some early seeds indoors in mid- to late-January and since we'll install new high tunnels sometime in February, this winter will be especially full with farm chores. Our work days may be shorter than the 14-plus hour dog days of summer, but there is still plenty to be done -- most important, the dreaming and planning for next year.

Thinking about how next year's farm enterprises will play out, it's impossible not to reflect with tremendous gratitude on how we survived this year's crazy weather and busy days due to the mentorship of the many farmers who have generously taken us under their wings, our family and friends, and of course the incredible support of our loyal customers.

Happy New Year and best wishes from Tree Gate Farm.

Sharon and Dean

Special thanks to:
Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming; Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County; Motherplants, Andy Leed of Starflower Farm; Michael, Karma, and Rosie of Kingbird Farm; Brent and Teresa of Red Tail Farm; Matthew and Liz of Muddy Fingers Farm; our migrant laborers (mom & dad); West Haven Farm; Felicia's Atomic Lounge; Rose's Home Dish; Garden Gate Delivery; The Piggery; the TGF acquisition team Kat and Mark; the world’s best neighbors, Mark and Julia; and of course, Scott: every day we appreciate some token of your generosity and sorely miss both your wisdom, counsel, and good cheer.