Winter’s shorter days and longer nights are a respite for the farmers here in the Northstate. The hot, sweaty, long, grueling days of the summer growing season are over, the cooler fall season has passed with its shortening days, and we hope the rain starts falling, recharging the soil with water and energy.
Here at Pyramid Farms, our farm runs year round, but winter is when we can rest a bit more, rejoice a bit more, sleep a bit more. Don`t get me wrong, I love all the seasons and all the different work flows and crops they bring, but after twenty-three years of farming, the farmer writing this gets tired and burnt out a little sooner in the year than when I was younger, so winter is a sweet relief. The crew here, although much younger than Lisa or me, bust their butts all spring, summer, and fall, so shorter days are a relief to their tired bodies, and they smile when we push our start time back because of later sunrises.
Winter markets can be quite an adventure, when pouring rain sometimes can blow in sideways and test our customers’ dedication to the market and our own cheerful and friendly outlooks.
There is still plenty of work to be done in the winter. We harvest on Fridays for our farmers’ market on Saturday. Winter markets can be quite an adventure, such as when pouring rain blows in sideways and tests our customers’ dedication to the market and our own cheerful and friendly outlooks. At one market like that about twenty years ago, I was one of the only vegetable farmers, with the wind howling and blowing rain every which way. I had to hold my canopy down to keep it from blowing away and help the customers coming out in a gale at the same time. By 10am I had sold most of my produce and there were no new customers coming, so the manager told us we could pack up and go. As a struggling farmer, it was one of my best farmers’ markets ever, and the rest of the winter I was secretly hoping for bad weather so I could sell out.
Winter brings unique vegetables I love. When orange cauliflower was new to people, we always had questions its color, and I used to say, “We go out on a full moon night and inject it with Cheese Whiz, organic, of course.” Now people know it to be a really flavorful cauliflower that kids eat without cheese sauce. The other vegetable to grace our tables in early winter is Romanesco. It too shocked customers at farmers’ market years ago, with its light green spirals that go from the tiniest part to the shape of the whole head. Super delicious with a buttery and nutty flavor, it ends up being many people’s favorite crucifer.
On the weekend before Thanksgiving, our market tables are filled to overflowing with all the vegetable glory of early winter. Broccoli at its sweetest from chilly nights, orange cauliflower, and Romanesco are in abundance. Sweet potatoes harvested in the fall are piled high, beets are sweet and tender, purple daikon and watermelon radish are cut open for eyecatching display of their gorgeous insides. Butternut and delicata squash are ready for baking. Cabbage has seen some cool weather, making it especially sweet. And, of course, there are loads and loads of carrots, crunchy, juicy, super sweet. For the last twelve years we have been donating 100% of our sales from the pre-Thanksgiving market to a good cause. For many years it was Heifer International, and lately I’ve decided to bring it local and support Slow Food North Valley and their work supporting school gardens and edible education. (Side note: if you’re interested in supporting school gardens in any way drop me a message.)
Carrots are not just food for your belly; they mean year-round employment for the crew, sparing them another job to get them through the winter. I pride myself on providing steady, year-round work for the wonderful young people who farm with us. Digging carrots in the rain with ten pounds of mud stuck to your boots and another couple of pounds stuck to your rain gear sure beats slinging coffee.
WINTER WORK: DECEMBER
December used to dependably bring rain in abundance, but with our changing climate you never know. In farming, it’s best to learn to control what you can, while knowing there are many things out of your control. I have rain related anxiety. I don’t know where it all comes from, some obviously from working in the challenging conditions of pouring rain, cold wind, and slippery mud. Some seems to come from deep inside me, maybe from a past life? I have learned to work with it, watch it, observe it coming up, getting larger, and then passing. One reason I love farming so much is there is time to for paying attention to my “stuff.” And with so many things out of my control or going wrong, there are plenty of opportunities to work with my own issues. The power of observation is probably the best tool a farmer has, and using that tool in my spiritual life helps me grow my self not just vegetables.
In December we complete the last of our field cleanup. The fall broccoli, cauliflower, and Romanesco get mowed down and tilled in, when the soil is not too wet, to decompose over the winter. If it’s too wet, the soil here turns to hard clods, making a mess of many years of careful tillage work, so timing is critical. Our soil here is a black clay, not naturally conducive to vegetable crops. When wet, it is very sticky, and if I try and cultivate or till it then it turns to big chunks that when dry are hard as rock. There is a sweet spot for working it, and when I hit that sweet spot, it tills up into many different size pieces, which break and fracture apart at the natural bonds leaving soft soil perfect for planting. I’ve spent years carefully working the soil when the conditions are right, and now the soil acts like a top-notch class one soil, not like the class three soil that I started with and that is not recommended for growing vegetables. Drip lines are rolled up to make our work in the spring easier, a lesson learned from having to pull them out in the spring, one of the most hated and reviled tasks for me and the crew. We clean up any other crops needing it, hopefully before it gets really wet and muddy.
And yes, there are carrots to be dug, washed, and taken to the farmers’ market or our wholesale accounts. Many got to know Pyramid Farms from our famous super sweet carrots, crunchy, sweet, juicy deliciousness delivered in carrot form. When the cold of winter sets in, carrots take all the stored energy in their tops and convert it to sugar stored in the root so in the spring they can take those stored sugars, grow new tops, make flowers, and seed. That stored sugar is what makes winter carrots candy sweet. We grow carrots all year round these days (you’ve demanded it), but winter carrots are what made carrot lovers out of so many. My first crop of carrots amounted to one bed 180 feet long and 4 feet wide with three rows in it. These days to keep our customers happy through the fall and winter we plant eighteen of those beds!
Carrots are not just food for your belly; they mean yearround employment for the crew, sparing them another job to get them through the winter. I pride myself on providing steady, year-round work for the wonderful young people who farm with us. Digging carrots in the rain with ten pounds of mud stuck to your boots and another couple of pounds stuck to your rain gear sure beats slinging coffee.
Some of our many past employees have moved on to other farms or started their own, and most have found that farming is wonderful and rewarding, but long hard days, grueling conditions, and the struggle to make a living convince most that they are better suited to other endeavors.
Winter is also the time I conduct interviews of prospective employees. I find my employees on ATTRA, a website that lists farm jobs and internships nationwide, allowing me to draw people from all over the country. Some have been totally green with no farm experience whatsoever, others with a few years’ experience. The qualities I look for most are dedication, responsibility, and the ability to work in all conditions with a positive attitude.
Lisa and I (and our customers!) have formed wonderful bonds with so many young people. Most stay for a year or two, though lately we’ve had some quit in a month, after discovering farming was too hard. Right now we have one employee Colin, who is in his fourth year here and staying on longer. Some of our many past employees have moved on to other farms or started their own, and most have found that farming is wonderful and rewarding, but long hard days, grueling conditions, and the struggle to make a living convince most that they are better suited to other endeavors. I like to tell employees that if we don’t make farmers out of them, they will end up telling the people who work the booths at farmers’ markets where they shop, “Thanks for all your hard work. I’ve worked on a farm before.”
Our employees are essential to the smooth operation of the farm, and with great employees everyone’s job is easier. We couldn’t be feeding so many people such good food without them, and we truly appreciate all their hard work. They have also provided Lisa and me the ability to travel a bit in the winter, something essential to our wellbeing. During our absence, they keep the veggies flowing from farm to your table, and we have to trust them a lot to leave them caring for the farm and animals. Angela Kidder, whom readers might remember because of her big smile and positive disposition, was on the farm for about a week before we left for a vacation. She did have farm experience and more importantly goat experience before we left her on her own, but looking back we say, “Did we really do that?”
WINTER WORK: JANUARY BREAK AND FEBRUARY BACK
In January, as the fields are put to bed and carrot digging is well underway with abundant yields, we leave the farm. If all goes well, I barely need to communicate with the crew. There have been times where I go WHAT? Really? But mostly we come home to everything alive and well. The crew runs the show and gets a nice bonus when we return; they also get to know what it’s like being responsible for keeping the veggies going out and animals cared for. I get to partake in my favorite hobbies of scuba diving and sitting on a tropical beach.
When we get home, it’s February, and can February really be called winter in the Northstate? Early February often brings a false spring, a dry spell that for me means starting the tractor up and preparing beds for planting. I’ll play the odds and seed beets, radishes, and carrots. Sometimes I win. Other times I say, “Well, that was a waste,” as slugs and pill bugs come out from hiding because it starts raining. They march down a row eating seedlings way faster than the seedlings can grow.
Mid-February also means the big dig of the remaining carrots. We get ‘em out, wash ‘em up, and fill our cold storage to the brim for sales the next few months. This effort preserves their sweetness and thwarts their effort to grow tops with all those stored sugars.
WORK OVER THE YEARS
We have learned the rhythm of the months from many years’ experience. I had nine years’ experience hobby farming two acres while I was a mechanic, even before I started selling my vegetables. When I decided to take the leap to full time farmer, I looked all over the area for suitable land. After I was not super excited with what I saw, my realtor remembered that the land the farm is on was for sale but not listed. When I saw this land, I was excited. Only five miles from downtown Chico, I would need just a short trip to deliver vegetables to wholesale accounts and to pick up supplies. The property had power, water and a septic tank, and an open field that had previously been an almond orchard. With help from my mother, I purchased it, moved a run-down double wide mobile on it, bought a tractor, and started to figure out how to make a living doing what I loved, growing organic vegetables. It was 1997, and Pyramid Farms was born.
The first ten years meant working sixty hours a week or more. I earned enough to build more infrastructure without taking out loans and to take an occasional vacation, but wasn’t saving for emergencies. I don’t have a mortgage on the land or trailer, so instead of paying loan payments, I self funded all the building and improvements here: shops with outdoor storage, employee housing, greenhouses, walk-in coolers, sheds, fenced pasture, goat and chicken housing. Now that infrastructure is mostly done, I’m able to save for retirement.
Many of you know Lisa from her lively, friendly disposition at farmers’ market. She and I met seventeen years ago, when I had been farming full time for six years. She was about to move onto land she owns in Nevada County when we stumbled across each other. Quickly she settled in and started on projects of her own. The milk goats were the first of those. At the time, they lived in portable electric netting on what might have been called a lawn. Then chickens were added to the mix, and the goatherd and the chicken flock were relocated to the most wicked patch of milk thistle and poor fill soil. With the help of chickens and goats and lots of hard work, it is now a magnificent irrigated pasture. We run our enterprises separately but support each other where we can. Lisa and I are very different in our ways of doing things, so we give each other the space to work our own way.
Running a farm as a couple can really add a lot of stress to a relationship, so we find keeping to our respective areas of expertise helps keep the peace and joy in our relationship. Lisa and I have been blessed with caring for this little peace of heaven, and it is a pleasure to grow vegetables and flowers for our community. I’ve watched kids brought to farmers market in their baby bundles grow into young adults fed on our veggies. I’ve watched customers grow older and retire.
We’ve seen farmers come and go at market, and market grow and improve greatly. We love growing food and flowers for our community and look forward to seeing you at market for many years to come.1
This is the first in a four-part series, in which Matthew Martin tells readers what’s happening on Pyramid Farms throughout the year.