Friday Takeaway: Winter is Here

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 5, 2018, by Caroline Pam

You know that Ryan Gosling meme that pops up on all the farm Instagram feeds this time of year? “Hey girl, let’s spread all those seed catalogs you got in the mail all over the bed and just circle stuff we want. All night long …”

Yeah, winter is not like that at all.

It’s true that next season starts now. All the thinking, mapping, budgeting and borrowing for spring is underway. But the days of hibernating by the woodstove and browsing through the Johnny’s seed catalog ended when we started farming year-round. With temperatures below zero, though, I can’t say we’re being all that productive. Every small task takes at least twice as long or is downright impossible.

The greenhouse salad mix we had planned to cut this week is frozen beyond salvation — no sense in heating the high tunnels during a cold snap like this since we’d spend more in propane than we’d make on the greens.

It’s a good thing there are no greens to wash anyway since the water line to the new (insulated and heated!) barn is frozen somewhere in the foundation. Last winter was plenty cold, and the pipes never froze, but I guess the cumulative effect of so many days and nights around zero is more than they can take. So with all the time we would have spent washing and packing up orders, we’re instead blasting the concrete wall with a propane heater from all directions to try to loosen up the ice and get water flowing again.

Meanwhile, there’s a snowstorm coming, which means hours of labor spent plowing the farm road and loading dock, and shoveling out the greenhouses, farmhouse and storage barns. Every time it snows, it costs us time and money and delays our real work.

And there’s plenty of work to do. The fun part is meeting with our biggest customers to discuss which vegetables they want more of and when, which new varieties we should trial, and how we can improve ordering and delivery logistics. This year, we also sat down with our core farm crew to review our successes and failures crop by crop and discuss what we can do better.

But before we can map out the field plantings, we have to renew all our leases to confirm that we’ve got access to land. Of the 50 acres we grow on, more than half are rented. Some of the landlords are elderly and leave town for the winter, so getting signed leases can take time and cause some nail biting. In addition to the signatures, we’re hoping to receive permission to install an irrigation well on one of the fields we rent in Whately, since we’ve seen what incredible carrots can grow in its light, sandy soil — but not without water like the last two dry years.

One of the Whately fields we were able to purchase a few years ago will be eligible for organic certification this year after three years of transition, so I had to track down the previous farm tenant to sign off on the paperwork. It feels like a big accomplishment that the vast patchwork of small fields we’ve been able to piece together over the past 12 years will soon all be certified organic. But with short-term tenure on much of the land, we’re always on the lookout for opportunities to rent or buy land with more security.

We’re almost ready to work out how much radicchio we’ll plant in Whately, and how many new hot-pepper varieties will fit in the home fields in Sunderland, but we’ve still got to figure out the finances. I mailed in the final operating loan payment of 2017 and will take the first draw of 2018 to buy seeds. We’re taking out new loans from Farm Credit and Farm Service Agency to build a kitchen at the farm, and we have to map out detailed cash flow projections for the next five years to make sure we can afford the debt payments. This means dozens of mind-numbing hours analyzing our expenses and spreadsheets — and we still have more to do.

Nothing beats staring at budgets to make you want to spend some money. After presenting workshops on growing peppers and building infrastructure at the New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference in New Hampshire last month, Tim and I wandered into the trade show. Oops, wouldn’t you know it, we walked out resolved to take the plunge and purchase a new transplanter and a finger weeder — two implements that will speed up our mechanical planting and cultivation systems and allow us to be more efficient, with less labor.

As we work to get better at growing beautiful vegetables, we are committed to capping our crew at a number that fits around the lunch table and paying our people better every year. And even though farming in the winter isn’t always fun, it allows us to keep our team employed year-round. So, once again, like I do every day, I’ll head to the farm tomorrow to brave the elements and try to make miracles happen.

Caroline Pam owns and operates Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland with her husband, Tim Wilcox. The farm grows organic vegetables, makes award-winning sriracha and salsa and hosts an annual hot pepper festival, Chilifest, in September.