Article published Dec 30, 2012
Weekly Planet column
What do Farmers Do in the Winter?
The other day I was enjoying a cup of tea at Café Terra, my favorite Rutland coffee shop, when an acquaintance stopped by to say hello. Amidst the small talk about the weather and the holiday season came the question I have begun to expect this time of year: What do farmers do in the winter?
This question is akin to asking what teachers do in the summer. There is no one answer; some take the summer off, many have non-school jobs, all prepare for the upcoming school year, and a number continue teaching throughout the summer months.
Like teachers, there is no one answer for farmers. Some take the winter off, many have off-farm jobs, all prepare for the upcoming growing season, and a number continue farming all year long.
So I answered this question as I always do: not speaking for all farmers, but stating what we, Radical Roots farmers, do in the winter.
As the days shorten and chill, we begin to clean and repair, everything from hand tools to greenhouses. We assess what needs to be renovated or repaired and what needs to be bought or built anew. We harvest the last of the field crops and fill our hoop houses with cold-hardy plants like kale and spinach. Some of these greens will be harvested and sold by mid-December; others will sit tight until they begin to grow again in early February.
While the greens sit tight, we take a break. One of the joys of vegetable farming in Vermont is that the climate dictates certain realities. The short days and cold temperatures mean that most crops do not grow very much - or at all - and the ones that do require very little human tending. This allows us to leave town for a few much-anticipated and much-appreciated weeks.
Our break is simple; we head as far south as our old truck can take us, and camp in state and national parks. Books are my guilty pleasure and I spend much of our vacation making up for lost reading time. Dennis is a bit more adventurous; he gets in as much fishing, hiking, canoeing, and biking as possible during those precious days off.
But while vacation is a time to relax and rejuvenate, it is also a time to review and renew. Equipped with last season’s crop and harvest notebooks and next season’s seed catalogs, we meticulously evaluate the past and eagerly plan for future. Plot diagrams are drawn, soil amendments needs are determined, harvest and marketing plans are developed, and seeds are ordered. All done while sitting beside a scenic (and often alligator-infested) river or roaring campfire.
But this out of town break is relatively short and our Vermont winters are infamously long. February brings an interesting juxtaposition of the foregoing and forthcoming seasons; last year’s greens are now ready for harvest and market, while seeding and preparing for the coming spring and summer begins in earnest. Suffice it to say, our vacation quickly becomes a thing of the past.
From this point forward, we are very much back on the farm.
The dilemma now lies in how we will respond to this question next year. Farmers are getting better and better at extending our growing season, and harvesting veggies in the winter, including fresh-picked greens, is no longer a pie in the sky dream. Stop by any winter farmers’ market and this reality will hit you between the eyes.
But just because we can, doesn’t mean we will. The joke going around the farming community is the need for a support group to help farmers reclaim the idea of the good old fashion winter break. On the other hand, we love growing the veggies that the good people of Rutland seem to enjoy and selling at winter market is one of our greatest joys.
Ask us next year what farmers do in the winter. It is anyone’s guess as to what our answer will be.
Carol Tashie, co-owner of Radical Roots Farm, lives in Rutland City and tries hard to find a balance between what is possible and what is impossible to ignore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org