Winter on the Farm

A Sense of Place:  Good Work Organic Farm

by Margaret Jensen


Winter on Good Work Organic Farm feels like two distinct seasons. In December, we move towards hibernation: the shutting down, the putting to bed, the selling of most last crops. . . the mixed feelings that come while waiting for a blanket of snow to cover the fields, relieving us of the need to keep working so hard. Our last farmers’ markets of the season run through the Saturday before Christmas. We’re bringing products to the very end, standing in the cold and offering holiday greetings to our most loyal (and most hardy) customers. The summer and fall harvests allowed us to package sun-dried tomatoes and apples, hang hot “Thai Dragon” peppers to dry, and put up supplies of winter squash, onions, and potatoes that we pull out of the storeroom. We’ve dried a couple of kinds of beans, culled the remaining garlic that’s still firm, and for as long as possible, we’ve harvested spinach, mixed lettuce and greens, and a few root crops, trying to keep the market tables as full as possible. We’re grateful for the company of other farmers who harvest early winter crops like citrus fruits, nuts, or kiwis, so that we’re not shivering alone at market during those last chilly days.

Driving home the van after the last market, climbing out, slamming the door. . . it feels like I’m ready to climb into bed for months, though in reality it’s really a good idea if I empty out and clean the van within a day or two, so that random fugitive vegetables don’t rot in place until February. This clean-out task usually drives home how many otherclean-up jobs were put off “until things slow down.” Well, experience has shown that if we haven’t finished all our clean-up tasks around the farm by mid-December, they probably aren’t going to get done until it gets a lot warmer in, say, maybe April. My loss of farm-related momentum and motivation is complete, though Gerry—the natural farmer in the family—continues with chores as the weather allows, and pulls in me and our son, Ian, as needed. Days are short in late December, though, and at 3,000 feet elevation, the storms roll in and actually block our view from the housedown to the fields below; out of sight really can be out of mind for a few days at a time. Instead, it’s time to take a few weeksoff and do what all farmers long to do: take a vacation from the farm!

tunnelrgb_72dpiWinter is the only option for a family vacation, if we manage one at all. There are other times during the year when one or two of us may take time to visit family for certain events like weddings or anniversaries, but for true relaxation, it’s that winter holiday time or nothing. Leaving the farm for more than a few days brings its own stresses, like finding someone who is willing to take care of the animals, even if it means slogging through a foot or more of snow down a long, badly-plowed road, and who can also monitor our earliest seedlings for their water, heat, and light needs. Sometimes, we just can’t make those arrangements, or make them for as long as we’d really like, and that’s a really disappointing end to the farming year. Other years, we go south to the sun and surf and come back renewed and ready to face. . . broken irrigation pipes! Flooded roads to our fields! Outbuildings with buckled or blown-off roofs! Yep, the weather usually blasts our farm as soon as we leave, so it’s a good thing that we generally have a few months before everything must be fully functional again. If we’re lucky enough to find “farm sitters,” we try not to tell them any of the horror stories.

minigreenshandrgb_72dpi9Mid-January we’re still in the hibernation stage, but engaged in a particular low-energy activity called “cruising the seed catalogs.” While other people are pouring over all the holiday gift catalogs that come in the late fall, we’re tossing those and keeping our eyes peeled for our favorite “wish books,” though we mostly don’t open them for a month or so. Curled up on the couch by the woodstove, with a pile of seed catalogs teetering on the coffee table, it’s time to indulge in farm fantasies. There are certain predictable hazards associated with each season on the farm, and while the winter weather may slap us with physical damages, the much greater danger to our long-term health is seed order overindulgence. As mothers forget the pain of childbirth when thinking about a next pregnancy, so it is with seed orders—we’ve conveniently forgotten all the pains associated with growing so many vegetables during the preceding months. “This year, I think I want to try. . . ” and “You know, we sold a lot of. . . , so maybe we should add another color.”  We’ve been farming for thirteen years, and you would think we’d know better by now than to be seduced by glossy photos and poetic descriptions.  Nope; we’re still suckers for a striped squash or a flashy heirloom tomato or a bolt-resistant lettuce variety that catches our eye for the first time. With pens in hands, we scribble on order sheets and grab at sticky notes to mark certain pages.  Sometimes we can justify a new variety by telling each other, “You know, a lot of customers asked about this,” but usually we have no such excuse. It’s just fun to grow new things, dagnabit! Eventually, budgets enter the discussion, and the final orders never include everything we salivated over—but there’s always next year.

gwofgarlicrgb_72dpiSeed orders done, it’s time for another off-season activity indulged in by many farmers: conferences and trade shows. These are usually scheduled between January and March, when most farmers are available to attend. For many years, Gerry has attended the Eco-Farm conference at Asilomar, which is an annual gathering of many of the pioneers of organic and sustainable agriculture, along with lots of other farmers, processors, and sellers of such products. It’s not cheap, but every year there’s been something we’ve learned that has then more than repaid the cost of the conference when we’ve applied it to our farming. (It’s also the place to attend the “gopher school” that so many people have asked us about since we mentioned it in an earlier article.) Some years we’ve attended the California Small Farm Conference, and Gerry usually has trainings related to his other job as an inspector for California Certified Organic Farmers.

Towards the end of January we start messing around with dirt and green things, as we start planting seedling trays. Our earliest seedlings are ones we’ll sell when the Redding Farmers’ Market opens in April, for folks who can’t wait for their tomatoes and zucchinis. Several areas of our house serve as the nursery for this earliest phase; it’s still just too cold to move anything out into our unheated little greenhouse until late February or early March. Our few visitors make their ways around shelves set up everywhere: in a sun porch, a large bay window, an alcove under the stairs. They step carefully over cords for the banks of grow-lights in all these places, and try not to slip on the edges of tarps. Snow piled outside the windows, there is nonetheless a slightly tropical feel in the house—and lots of potting soil scattered on our uncarpeted floors.  It’s been years now since we’ve apologized to anyone for the mess; it’s just who we are, making use of the building we’ve got. When we win the lottery, then we’ll build the fantasy greenhouse—and maybe put some carpet in our home.

gwof_dry_apples_72dpiEven in January and February, the second piece of our winter season, there are tasks we have to do amidst our rows of mostly-dormant garlic and onions, like weeding. If the weather is nice enough for us to work the dirt, it’s nice enough to give energy to winter weeds, especially the tiny ones we ignored when they sprouted back in November or December. Finding a lawn of weeds during a good weather spell in February is really aggravating, especially since our hoeing and hauling muscles have been hibernating, too.  Or we can induce other aches and pains by pruning apple trees. There’s all that reaching up, getting smacked by falling branches, and falling into gopher holes.  At our elevation we just get the curses that come with mild winter weather and none of the benefits—it’s not like we can plant out any vegetable seedlings until April at the earliest, unlike our cohorts in the valley. And if the winter weather is bad, well, more curses: our lovely 30’x100’ high tunnel sheds the snow beautifully, but by the time we’ve accumulated a couple of feet, it all has to be shoveled away from the sides to keep the pressure off. Do the math—it’s a lot of snow to move. Maybe twice. Maybe three times. In the cold, with ageing backs. Though he might try to tell you otherwise, we can’t leave all of that task to Ian, even with his superior 16-year-old strength and speed.

Oh, and the gophers in winter, you ask? Well, it’s much warmer inside the high tunnel, and hey, they were busy all summer and fall, just like we were. So, why not take a gopher vacation to the sun and warmth . . . yeah, that’s right. While we’re shoveling snow, the gophers are relaxing in the high tunnel spa, warm and dry, and enjoying all the late season spinach we so graciously left for them. Winter on Good Work Farm? Honestly, you’ll excuse us if we decide to go back to bed until late March? Just ask the gophers if you need anything—they know where to find all the good stuff, and they’re in much better shape than we are. 


Margaret Jensen is known to customers at Redding area farmers’ markets as The Garlic Lady. This is the third in a full-year series of articles Margaret is writing about the seasons on Good Work Organic Farm.

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