Each winter, customers who found us the previous summer brave the elements to shop with us at the winter farmers market. We enjoy this, because we have more time to visit and get to know one another outside of the hustle and bustle of the summertime markets. As we have watched them mature from timid farmers-market first timers into confident, often-exploratory, harvesters of wholesome foods, the question inevitably comes up, “What do you do all winter?”
Chores vs. Work
Chores are the first (and often last) thing every day, no matter what. Somebody is out at first light to feed and water the livestock, check the greenhouses, and make sure some strange thing hasn’t happened— because strange things happen. With really cold weather, we have to break ice so livestock can access fresh water, take extra hay, and get machinery warmed up and working. Just moving temporary fences takes longer when the ground freezes. Whether it takes an hour, or two or three hours, it’s still just chores, not work.
Chores are our opportunity to commune with nature—one reason we are proud to be farmers. There are familiar scenes that play out differently each day: the rooster standing tall while four or five hens busily preen his feathers; the ewes gleaning the remaining green sprigs, which we see as good pasture management to remove weeds and open up the canopy for desirable perennial plants to proliferate; or the designated kindergarten-teacher cow watching over all the calves while the other mothers go out to graze. The animals know us, have a routine and know we will be out to care for them.
Each day as part of chores, we try to do one thing to prep for future chores, like putting up the next temporary electric fence, set up lambing areas or winterizing a turkey trailer. By working ahead, things are already done on the day we need them, and we can move on the next thing. By doing this all year, viola, we get eggs, beef, turkey, pork and lamb to share with you. So by tending to the animals’ needs on a daily basis, it never seems like much. If we added up the time it takes to pull on coveralls, hats, gloves and boots each time, to go out and tend to something, it would be considerable. But then again, that’s just part of chores.
Work means doing something to advance the operation: harvesting, marketing, repairing. With CSA and three farmers markets each week through the winter, there is a fair amount of time spent harvesting and washing fresh produce. We watch the forecast to cut spinach and pull root crops when conditions allow, saving the comfy harvest of crops in the high tunnels for later. Sorting sweet potatoes and winter squash, filling meat orders and making deliveries keep us moving. Then there are the little things we put off, like the cart with bad wheels, organizing and inventorying the boxes, shoring up the greenhouses, etc.
Winter allows us to work on our business, not just in it. Most of the 2016 income and expense numbers are in a software program somewhere. We also use another software program developed specifically for diverse vegetable production that overlays input costs, labor and marketing expenses to fully grasp just how much each crop cost to produce. Perhaps asparagus is profitable, but we see strawberries lost money—we’d better figure out why. During the entire growing season, there are several information funnel points that become important at the end of the year; things like amount and cost of seeds purchased, number of transplants grown in the greenhouse, market sales by location, delivery expenses of CSA shares, etc. Each of us codes our time sheets in designated categories, as well, since people power is by far the biggest farm expense. Winter is the time to parse out all this data to guide our decision making for next year. Of course, all of this will come in handy preparing our taxes along with our next organic-certification application. There will be many deep-dive conversations over the next few months about improving efficiencies, new varieties, modifying planting schedules, farm-tour schedules and many other topics, based on what the numbers tell us.
We usually schedule a bigger project for the slow time, even though the days are really short. Last year, it was aligning our record-keeping systems to match up with our software programs. This year’s is enclosing our packing shed and upgrading our handling systems. Every sprig of what we harvest goes through the packing shed for washing, cooling, counting, sorting, weighing or something. What worked a few years back does not work for the schedule we now keep. So, we are enclosing the shed, insulating to accommodate working through the winter, and designing custom product-handling systems to accommodate worker comfort, reduce cost and improve product quality. With the new Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act laws looming, upgrading the facilities to meet the impending regulation is a worthy investment. It’s exciting to take this leap, to invest in meeting your demand for our products.
Then there are our friends and community to feed. You all don’t just stop eating because it’s wintertime, and we’ve developed systems to store and grow food year-round. A few years ago, we put the two together to start a winter CSA. From January through March, we deliver a box of food every-other-week to just a fraction of the number of shareholders that we have all summer, but we take the work just as seriously. If you want to receive our best produce, meat, eggs and pantry items all year, now’s the time to sign up when you see us at the farmers market or online. The first deliveries take place January 12 to 14.
And we do tend to get home a little earlier with the days so short. Just like seasonal eating, our diurnal patterns demand respect—eating dinner closer to sunset is still a good idea. A few decent snows will slow the outside world a little bit, giving us more time with new Great Pyrenees puppies; a UK basketball game or two; plenty of little, put-off projects around the house; and napping. Each family on the farm schedules time away each winter, although somebody has to always be here for chores.
In response to the “What do you do all winter?” question, what immediately comes to mind are images of trudging through 20-inch-deep snow—like we did two years ago (twice)—to get water to the livestock, moving row covers to harvest greens from the field—and then putting them back again, installing new doors in the packing shed, and pouring over spreadsheets in the evenings. Then we recognize how lucky we are to be in a position to be farmers and nourish our customers. So we say, simply, “Oh, there’s always plenty to do.” That’s what farming is all about. We are grateful for the opportunity. Thanks for your support. —Mac Stone