The crops have all been harvested, the rain and cold are here, the farmer’s markets are closed — do you imagine us farmers cuddled up in bed, enjoying a long rest before the Spring arrives? It’s a nice image and something we’d like, perhaps punctuated by rest on a beach in Mexico, but the real image is quite different.
The winter for farmers is just as busy as spring and summer, but busy with other types of activities than during the growing season. Of course, what happens here, as a diversified, organic farm, is different than what happens at conventional farms, but all farmers, no matter their operation, have very busy winters.
Our season at Potrero Nuevo Farm ended just before Thanksgiving. Our last crops were picked and donated to Catholic Worker House in Half Moon Bay and Puente in Pescadero, bringing our seasonal donation total to just over 15,000 pounds. Our U-Pick Club made their last visit then, too, taking home their last freshly picked produce until the next season begins in mid-to-late May. The day after the last harvest, we were in the fields working.
First, we removed all the irrigation lines and stored them for the next season’s use and then we removed the woody stalk debris from plants like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and corn and some inedible portions of leftover plants to compost. We have our own compost operation on the farm, which provides tons of compost annually to build soil fertility. The rest of the plant material was disked into the ground and a cover crop was planted comprised of bell beans, vetch, oats and winter peas. This crop will be watered by the winter rains and in the early spring we’ll mow the crop and then disk it into the soil. As it decomposes it adds not only organic matter, but also fertility to the soil. It also keeps our topsoil from eroding with the winter rains. As an organic farm, our practices aren’t just to use the soil for planting, but to build it and improve it through planting.
In the next few weeks we’ll start planting seeds in trays that will enjoy the warmth of our greenhouse and receive controlled watering. They’ll be monitored daily to ensure that no fungi or other diseases ail them. Every plant grows at a different rate. Amongst the 40-50 different vegetables and flowers that we grow some have sprouted and are ready for transplanting in weeks, some in months. Once a seedling has grown an appropriate amount and we’ve confirmed it’s healthy, it goes from the greenhouse into what we call our “hardening-off” shelter. It’s a greenhouse, but without end walls so it is cooler than the fully enclosed greenhouse, but warmer than the ambient air. A couple of weeks there provides a transition for the plants and they get used to the cooler days and even cooler nights. Once they’ve hardened off, they will be planted in the fields.
The timing of this process is far more complex than it sounds. We have to know how long it takes each plant to go from seed to seedling, how long it’ll take that plant to mature enough in the greenhouse before it can be hardened off and we have to stagger all this work throughout the season so that vegetables and fruits are maturing throughout the season so that our donations and sales to our U-Pick Club can go interrupted throughout the growing season. All of that takes thorough and precise planning and much time is spent during the winter months pouring through seed catalogs, making orders and gathering information on seed and plant maturation rates.
Our farm manager, Jay and Suzie Trexler, prepare planting charts for every seed tray and every field. The wintertime is taken up by many hours in the office planning these details. By the time the planning is done, we’ll have a calendar that details the planting and sowing schedules for the entire season. Added into the mix is that we plant and sow according to lunar cycles. Just as the moon effects tides, it effects water in the soil and plants — sometimes the water rises closer to the surface of the soil and into the roots or above-soil areas of the plants, sometimes it drops deeper into the soil and those different water levels can be capitalized on since different plants like different moisture conditions.
In addition to all of the winter planning, there are winter clean up chores. Like everyone, farmers often put projects on the proverbial back burner and by the end of the growing season we have longs lists of chores to do like cleaning out the barn (every year!!), doing additional maintenance on all the farm machines and tools, organizing the tool shed and wood shop…and on and on. Sometimes it feels like a whole pile of missed spring cleanings mashed into a month or two. But at the end of it all, everything is in order so that we can work efficiently during the growing season.
We have a small orchard on the farm with about 45 fruit trees. They require winter pruning so that their spring growth is enhanced. So, too, many of the landscaping here needs special attention in the winter. And the winter rains, of course, bring both grasses and weeds so there is a lot of wintertime mowing and weeding and landscaping.
One of the ways an organic farm can contend with nuisance pests is to create environments that bring beneficial insects to the farm. We have four hedgerows with native species of plants that attract beneficial insects that will eat the bothersome, destructive ones. Wintertime is when we prune and fertilize and mulch our hedgerows so that by the spring they can bloom healthfully to attract beneficial insects.
There are business things to do in the winter as well. We will expand our U-Pick Club this year from 25 members to 40 so the winter months are when we need to attract new members to the farm. During our clean up chores we inevitably find tools that need to be replaced so those need to be ordered as do the many supplies we’ll rely on during the growing season: irrigation lines and fittings, potting soil, seed trays and so on. Once the growing season starts, we need to hit the ground running and know that everything we need for the season we have on hand. The winter months gives us that time to prepare.
So the wintertime at a farm is a busy time. Truth be told, our farm managers did get a week on a beach in Mexico in December, but then it was back to work! No hibernation here. Once all of our winter work is finished, we’ll have begun a new growing season and, by late May, we’ll be harvesting the fruits and vegetables that have flourished because of our wintertime planning and preparing.