There’s Always Plenty to Do
Each winter, more and more individuals who found us the previous summer brave the elements to shop with us at the winter farmers markets or at our on-farm store. 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 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 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. By tending to the animals’ needs daily, 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 two farmers markets each week through the winter, there is a fair amount of time spent harvesting and prepping fresh produce. We watch the forecast to cut spinach when conditions allow, saving the comfy harvest of crops in the high tunnels for later. Sorting sweet potatoes and potatoes, 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 saggy greenhouse door, etc.
Winter allows us to work on our business, not just in it. Most of the income and expense numbers are in a software program somewhere. We also have used 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. We keep up with our time in designated categories, 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 the next year. Of course, all of this also comes in handy when preparing our taxes, or our organic-certification renewal application.
We usually schedule a bigger project for the slow time, even though the days are short. One year, it was enclosing our packing shed with garage doors and insulation. Another year it was upgrading our vegetable wash handling system. 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 and upgrading the facilities and our processes are important to meet your demand for our products.
Then there are our friends and community to feed. You 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. Over 12 weeks winter through spring, we deliver a box of food every-week or every-other-week to a small subset of the number of shareholders that we have all summer, but we take the work just as seriously. These are members that eat seasonally year-round, just like their farmers do.
And we do tend to get home a little earlier with shorter days. Just like seasonal eating, our diurnal patterns demand respect—eating dinner closer to sunset is still a good idea. Some days allow for projects around the house, time with family, or even naps by the woodstove.
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 to get water to the livestock, moving row covers to harvest greens—and then putting them back again, upgrading our packing shed, and pouring over spreadsheets in the evenings. Then we recognize how lucky we are to be able to be farmers and nourish our community. So, we usually say, simply, “Oh, there’s always plenty to do.” Thank you for your support. —Mac Stone