It’s a common misconception that farmers’ lives drastically change in the winter season as the temperature drops and snow covers the fields. Some may think this is a time for farmers to kick back and relax, with not much to do on the farm. However, that is far from the truth. Typically, the winter months require more work to grow food or care for livestock and more time devoted to planning out the upcoming growing and selling season. Since our farmers do it all, from growing or producing the product, to bringing it to market and selling it to customers, they tend to many different needs this time of year. To find out exactly what our farmers were up to this winter, I decided to ask them at our year-round Saturday market in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Most farmers said that work was about the same in the winter when they’re coming to our year round farmers market, but that things are different on the farm. Those farmers who pasture livestock said it is much more difficult in the winter because you have to make sure the animals have enough water and feed. So this means much more attention to detail and much more work lugging water and hay to the animals. Jeanne Dietz-Band of Many Rocks Farm notes that her breeding schedule is such that all her goats are born in the colder months in order to help them build immunity for the hot summer months.
Winter is a little different for vegetable farmers. Most of the produce that is being grown is mostly done in greenhouses, which are heated by wood or gas furnace. This time of year farmers are growing a variety of greens, such as kale, mixed salad greens, herbs and Swiss chard. They are also producing some root vegetables such as turnips, baby radishes, daikon radishes, carrots and sunchokes.
Vegetable farmers also prepare their fields for the winter months by planting cover crops such as rye, barley and hairy vetch. These cover crops improve the quality of the soil by breaking up compacted areas, providing fresh plant material for beneficial organisms such as earthworms and helping keep moisture in the fields. These cover crops also provide erosion control, improve soil fertility and contain weed growth. Before the planting season these crops can simply be tilled back into the soil. Farmers also plant their garlic in late fall/early winter since it can grow with a good snow or straw cover. The garlic is generally harvested in the spring.
At Quaker Valley Farm & Orchard the winter months are the time to prune their fruit trees, a daunting activity to say the least that typically takes the entire winter season. Annual pruning allows for a more productive fruit crop throughout the growing season. Trees that are not pruned become congested with old branches and yield less fruit.
The winter is also a time for farmers to attend farming conferences to learn about sustainable practices that can enhance their farming operations. Julie Stinar of Evensong Farm will be attending PASA (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) Farming for the Future conference as will Paul Mock of Mock’s Greenhouse and Fredi and Winn Schulteis of Quaker Valley Farm & Orchard. Jeanne Dietz-Band of Many Rocks Farm is planning to attend the Women in Agriculture conference hosted by the University of Delaware.
Other farmers use the winter as a time to be creative about bringing in additional revenue. Eli Cook of Spring Valley Farm & Orchard cuts and sells firewood from his land in West Virginia. Chicano Sol keeps its organic production up by selling to two restaurants and the Tuscarora Organic Cooperative. Some farmers do take the time to have a little fun and relax. Paul Mock jokingly notes he likes to sit down in the winter, an activity that doesn’t happen too often in the busier spring, summer and fall seasons. He also enjoys skiing and indoor tennis. Winn Schulteis of Quaker Valley likes to go snowmobiling (snow willing) and take a family vacation to Florida. Others have fun coming to market in the winter and seeing their happy customers.
Last but not least, the winter is the time farmers do all the accounting and paper work that was pushed aside in the summer and fall, as well as set their business goals for the upcoming season. Our farmers run every part of their business and the start of the New Year brings time to reset, refocus and plan out the coming season. As with any business, there is always work to do, even in the winter months.
Reg Godin, Program and Markets Manager