Columnist Claire Morenon: Farmers work all year long

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 26, 2018, by Claire Morenon

Farming is, of course, a seasonal occupation — but really, there’s no off season.

While the landscape may appear still and empty during these late winter months, local farmers of all stripes are working hard caring for animals, boiling sap and planning for another bountiful summer season.

For vegetable growers who run complex and varied operations, the winter months offer time to build the foundation on which the hectic growing season rests. This foundation is made of a thousand details and decisions: crop planning and seed ordering, budgeting and financing, hiring seasonal employees, repairing equipment and renewing leases on fields.

Harvest Farm of Whately, photo by Jason Threlfall

Winter is also an opportunity to attend trade shows and workshops, connect with and learn from other farmers, and shore up relationships with wholesale buyers.

In recent years, more fruit and vegetable growers have made the necessary infrastructure investments so that they can keep harvesting hardy greens or storing fruit and root crops for winter sales. This shift has made local produce available at winter farmers markets, year-round farm stands and grocery stores, and it translates to year-round income for farmers and year-round employment for their crews.

It also demands that work that used to pause during the winter months, like washing and packing produce or staffing weekly markets, continues without a break — complicated by frozen temperatures and snow removal.

For orchardists, the work of maintaining healthy fruit trees happens year-round. Tim Smith of Apex Orchards in Shelburne says, “Out in the orchard, we’re pruning trees now and getting ready to do some grafting in a couple of weeks. And we do orchard maintenance in the fall and early spring so we have fewer pest and disease issues, like grinding up the fallen leaves in the fall to reduce apple scab.”

Maple sugaring season is currently underway, and this year it’s right on schedule. The season usually runs between late February and early April, when fluctuations in temperature lead to pressure changes in maple trees and the sap starts flowing. When the sap is flowing, sugar makers are working!

Jacqueline Dufresne, who runs Dufresne’s Sugar House in Williamsburg with her husband Keith, says, “Warm spells, like last week’s, can advance the trees and shorten the season, but it’s still too early to say what will happen. It’s just so variable — I remember one season, way back, when the temperatures were ideal: 20 degrees at night and 40 degrees during the day, and the sap ran every day for six straight weeks. And then another year, we made two-thirds of our crop in eight days — the sap flow was so heavy we would pull it in all day, boil all night, sleep two hours, and get up and do it again.”

Denise Barstow, whose family runs Barstow’s Longview Farm and Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery, gives this report from the dairy farmer’s perspective: “Winter on the farm means less time out in the fields and more time in the barn and shop. We’re working on maintenance on our barns and equipment, mapping our crop rotation plans, and soon we’ll be purchasing seed. As for the cows, consistency is the name of the game. The slogan in the barns is ‘same thing, same time, every day.’ If we get a foot of snow, we get up earlier to move it so the girls get their breakfast at 6 a.m. on the dot. If the pipes freeze, we drop what we’re doing to make sure the calves get their dinner precisely at 4 p.m. Dairy farming is a full-time, year-round commitment. But we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if it were any other way!”

So even though we’ve got another couple of months until the first asparagus pokes through the soil, farmers are poring over spreadsheets, harvesting greens, washing carrots and hauling feed to their animals.

If you find yourself in an agricultural state of mind, here are some thoughts on how you can support them this time of year. Visit a winter farmers market or stop by a year-round farm stand. Sign up for a summer farm share now and provide much-needed income to a Community Supported Agriculture farm while you look forward to weekly vegetables throughout the growing season. Some sugar shacks offer pancake breakfasts during sugaring season, which is a real early spring treat — you can see sap boiling while you enjoy a meal in a rustic setting.

Farmers never stop working, and we’re lucky to have access to the local bounty all year long — so make a plan to enjoy it!

Claire Morenon is communications manager at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield.

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