Thursday, January 26, 2012

What do farmers do in the wintertime?

Once upon a time, during my first farming apprenticeship, I asked my mentor what is the most popular question he gets asked.  Is it "what IS this vegetable?"  Is it "so what does organic mean anyways?"  He said it was actually "so what do you do in the winter?" a question I hadn't actually thought of yet, and at the time it was November!

So WHAT DO farmers do in the winter?  Well, it depends on the farmer.  Those that have livestock year round obviously have to take care of those animals year round - yes, even on Christmas.  No holidays for cows.  Orchard farmers do a lot of their pruning in the winter.  In the northeast they also plan out their treatment strategies, whether organic or not, to deal with the immense pest pressure we've got going on up here.  Grain farmers manage their store of grain and plan for the next season.  Veggie farmers, like me, try to recoup from a long, exhausting and dirty season.  Then we plan for the next one.  Sometimes we do winter markets.

Essential components of crop planning in order of importance: 1. hot tea 2. seed catalogs (aka veggie porn) 3. garden bed plans 4. spreadsheets 5. writing implements
 I just finished my crop plan for the year.  I don't know whether other gardeners/farmers on my scale go through such painstakingly detailed lengths to plan out their garden, but I do because otherwise I'd be lost during the season.  I actually find it really hard to see an empty bed and visualize what can go in there.  Doubly so when things are companion planted.  What goes into crop planning?  Well, for me, first is daydreaming: what would my perfect garden look like in 2012?  Lots of tomatoes? Little to no chard? (I hate chard) endless garlic? A few essential flowers?  Then it's the steamy stuff: looking through seed catalogs.  Every farmer I know loves it when seed catalogs first arrive in the mail.  It's like a Victoria's Secret catalog, except all the models are replaced by stacks of unblemished veggies.  And all the descriptions are filled with measurements that would make you blush.  Five pound melons, cucumbers the size of your forearm, you get the picture.  After I've circled way too many interesting items in the catalogs, it's time for the nitty gritty: looking through my notes from last year.  What worked?  What didn't?  What would work if I just tweaked it a little?  This way I can determine what needs changing.  I'd like to think that someday I'll get everything perfectly right, but it seems I have a long way to go.

With catalogs and notes in hand I start to draw out the beds and then type up the spreadsheet.  The bed plan is a visual reference for how everything will fit into the space I have.  For years I skipped this part because I had much more space to plant and a pretty good idea of where to put everything.  Now that I have only 2,300 sq. ft., it's much more of a jigsaw puzzle.  Not only do I have to fit everything into the space, but also in time, most beds get planted at least twice, some up to four times before the year is up.  It's really intensive, but I'm hoping that my additions of compost, humus, microbial inoculants and trace minerals help keep the system balanced.  The spreadsheet is where the magic happens...on paper at least.  Every vegetable variety, every planting and seeding date, plant spacing and even projected harvest dates...it's all in there and because it is on a computer I can click a few buttons and organize it any way I want.  I don't know what farmers did before spreadsheets.  I imagine they just had an innate sense of how much and when.  A pity or progress?  Who knows.

Finally, finally I get to write out the seed order.  I make an inventory of seeds I still have in stock and I double check the catalogs (including the Hudson Valley Seed Library's online catalog) to compare and contrast.  For the most part these are the factors, in order, that affect where I get what seeds from: local/small scale supplier, organic, open pollinated, price.  To be perfectly honest, sometimes price is a big factor.  I'd love the totally awesome, new, open pollinated, organic seed from High Mowing, but I could also get something similar, but not organic from Johnny's at 1/10 the price.  So it goes.  Fortunately I am at a scale where lots of the HV Seed Library stuff is appropriate, and they top the charts on all of those previously mentioned factors, especially because I get a membership every year and that gets me a discount on the seeds. By the way, just because your seed catalogs at home look small and friendly doesn't mean they don't send money to Monsanto in some convoluted way.  Most seed companies do not raise all of their own seed, they buy it from larger seed houses and big corporations have long sticky tendrils that even go into organic seed suppliers. Read more about it in this HV Seed Library post. (By the way, can you tell that I totally love that company?)

Actually, I have one more step, and I'm about to do it on Monday.  There's a couple of other super small farmers around that get together to do a swap and share.  This means that we compare crop plans and then either swap seeds that we have extra of or share an order to get the price break.  This worked out really well for me last year because there are a lot of vegetables that I only need a few plants, but the minimum order was for 100 or more seeds.  Even in 5 years I couldn't use all of those seeds.  So we all get to shave off some bucks and then have a nice dinner afterwards!

Phew!  That was a lot of work huh?  Well, since this was a very word-heavy post, here's a picture of that radicchio that I forced for the winter.  I had some for a salad last night.  Very mild and tender.  Yum!


By the way, you did know that I am total maniacal dork, right?

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