Columnist Claire Morenon: Late winter on the farm

Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 25, 2019, by Claire Morenon

Maple Corner Farm, Granville

We’re unarguably in the depths of winter, but signs of the coming spring have started to emerge — the days are getting longer and the sun is intensifying. Maple sugaring season has begun as winter loosens its grip, kicking off the first major harvest of the year.

Maple syrup producers have set taps into trees, checked the lines that will carry sap to storage tanks, and are ready for the sap to flow. The sap will get moving when the weather conditions are right: nights that fall below freezing and days that rise above it, causing pressure fluctuations in the trees. Sap is perishable, so when it’s flowing sugar-makers work around the clock to haul it in and boil it into shelf-stable syrup. It’s an intensive burst of labor that lasts four to eight weeks, and it ends when the temperatures warm up and trees begin to bud.

Maple syrup producers aren’t the only farmers hard at work during this time of year. Any farmer with animals works year-round providing food, bedding, medical care, and daily milking for dairy cows. Soon, birthing season will begin, barns will begin to fill with lambs, calves and baby goats, and livestock farmers will join maple sugar-makers in the ranks of farmers on all-night duty.

On vegetable farms, work has already begun — or, in some cases, it never paused. Until about 10 years ago, it was a challenge to find much local produce in the Valley during the winter months. Today, many farmers have made investments in new equipment and structures so they can sell their vegetables at farmers’ markets, through farm shares, and to local grocery stores all winter long. These investments include storage facilities for root vegetables and squash and greenhouses that lengthen the growing season of hardy greens like spinach and kale.

Sarah Voiland, who owns Red Fire Farm with her husband Ryan, says, “Oh, there are lots of fun considerations unique to winter sales. We have all kinds of vegetables stored in our geothermal storage chambers, and we don’t wash them before storage because they keep longer that way. So we bring them up to our packing barn to get them nice and clean, and pack them to take to market.

She adds, “With storage and wash rooms in winter, we have to maintain above-freezing temperatures and we’re always going around, checking our storage and fixing heating. One of the biggest challenges is care of our trucks. They need babying to keep the diesel fuel from gelling in the single digits — we have to warm the fuel so we can drive them. And we’ve had to retrofit our trucks with heaters in the back to keep the produce from freezing en route.”

Regardless of winter sales, work has begun in earnest on produce farms for this coming season. Seed orders are complete, planting schedules are mapped out, and hiring is underway. Farmers have been in touch with wholesale buyers and are reaching out to new customers. Things are growing, too: greenhouses are full of young plants, including the onions, shallots, and scallions that are among the first to be transplanted outdoors, and the bedding plants that will fill many of our gardens this summer.

Orchards have their own timelines and needs. Bob and Sally Fitz, who own Small Ones Farm in Amherst, know that their 700 fruit trees will require around 250 hours of pruning, which must be completed before the trees start to bud in April. Then comes orchard cleanup, chopping the pruned branches into wood chips for the orchard, new tree plantings, placing orders for everything they’ll need throughout the season, and plenty of equipment maintenance.

Says Bob, “The only time we get off is in the month of December, maybe some of January. The rest of the time we’re on the go. Once April 15th hits all hell breaks loose and we need to be in the field every day — I can’t be in the barn fixing things.”

The shift toward spring is barely perceptible for many of us, but it’s comforting to know that it’s well underway for local farmers. Catch some of that early spring energy by signing up for a summer farm share now, and by enjoying the fruits of farmers’ winter work at the winter farmers’ market or at your local grocery store.

And make the most of this season by taking a trip to a local sugar shack for a maple season breakfast — truly, one of the great pleasures of early spring in Massachusetts.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).