What Your Farmer Does in Winter

Farming is a lifestyle with few breaks. From beef to dairy to produce, farming is a year-round job. Given the thin profit margins that farmers contend with, any slow periods farmers may have are crucial to either getting caught up or finding additional work to supplement farm income. While the seasons of planting, maintaining and harvesting crops are visibly hectic and consuming, the chillier and more barren months are a necessary time for planning and preparing for the next successful season. 

In the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the USDA reported that 52.2 percent of farmers had a primary occupation other than farming and that for 70.3 percent of farms, farm income accounted for less than 25 percent of total household income. Many farmers have off-season jobs that sustain them through the winter months - and often even through the summer ones. In the United States, consumers tend to be unwilling to pay for the high costs involved in food production because we have made food extremely cheap to buy. (And it's hard to blame Americans for skimping on food costs when they pay disproportionately high amounts for education, health insurance and housing relative to other developed countries.) But unfortunately, the cheap cost of food doesn't accurately reflect the labor and input costs of farming, and farmers rarely see an income that allows them to focus strictly on their chosen profession.

Preparing the Winter Crop

After the rush of the harvest season, with many farmers tying up loose ends with farmers' markets and CSAs, the most immediate jobs for farmers are cleanup and repairs. When I spoke to James Donegan, of Trillium Hill Farm in Vermont, we discussed his winter schedule while he was running between stocking up on fertilizer and picking up repaired equipment. For James, late fall begins the transition of focus from ground plants to hoop houses for the winter crop, which means preparing both fields and hoop houses for that transition. Hoop houses need to be repaired and re-sealed to protect the new seedlings. Old field crops have to be fully removed and cover crops planted for the impending winter. Furthermore, late fall is the time for conducting soil tests and then amending for nutrient deficiencies, all before the winter fully sets in.

Budgeting and Purchases

A large portion of the winter is spent budgeting. (Yes, we see your eyes glazing over, but stick with us.) This is the time for farmers to detail sales from the past year and compare the success and failures of different crops. James says lettuce, spinach and delicata squash were this year's heavy hitters; whereas Asian greens, celery and - everyone's favorite punching bag - kohlrabi did not sell very well this year. This assessment, as well as other factors such as crop rotations, weather patterns, soil quality and how likely people are to start liking kohlrabi, will all inform crop planning for the upcoming season.

Additionally, and closely tied to budgeting, purchases are made in the winter. Since there is lower demand for farm machinery in the off-season, winter is also the time to send machinery in for repairs or to budget for new machinery. And choosing the upcoming year's crops means purchasing seeds and fertilizer and creating planting schedules.

Marketing

Marketing is another aspect of the business-side of farming which tends to get focused on more in the colder months. For smaller-scale farmers, marketing and branding is exceptionally important, especially as consumers get more informed and specific about their expectations for how their food is produced. Farms have a lot to gain from maintaining websites, Instagram feeds and Twitter accounts. Given the American pastoral vision of life on the farm, some happy-families-on-farm photos go a remarkable way in attracting consumers. Many farmers also find themselves marketing heavily to restaurants and supermarkets during this time if they have the output available to sell more than just direct to consumer.

Supplementing Farm Income

Even with all of these offseason responsibilities, many farmers find time to work additional jobs to bring in extra income. In past years, James has chopped and sold wood to supplement farm costs. He's also coached cross country, Nordic skiing and track. And James says he currently does odd jobs around the town, such as taking a shoveling job and clearing the sidewalks at the town hall. Many farmers will opt for snow removal to bring in some extra money; if you've already got a truck, hitching a plow to it is a no-brainer if your crops are buried under a foot of snow. Recently, Sara, James's wife, has taken on a job as director of their local library in Hinesburg, Vermont, leaving James with the bulk of the farmwork. And for those who make a living solely from farming, like James, the wintertime is that much more important. 

Trillium Hill Farm is in its thirteenth year of producing vegetables - which are its mainstay and centerpiece - but James and Sara also raise cattle and his family owns a maple sugaring business. With these additional parts of the farm business, the wintertime doesn't slow anything. Maple lines and buckets need to be set out in advance, in order to prepare for the spring thaw. Cattle need to be moved and need fresh hay and water. In the cold of winter, James says there are a number of days when their normal water lines freeze, so he has to fill a water tank in the back of his truck and haul it to the cows and to irrigate the garden and hoop houses. "It can be a hassle," he says.

As a seasonal eater in areas with limited growing seasons, the winter can seem interminable and full of potatoes. But even though your local farmers' market may have shrunk to root vegetables and canned goods (or even closed for the season), you can rest assured knowing those farmers are hard at work so they can open up strong come spring.