The Mixed Blessings of Winter Farming

by admin on December 28, 2014

IMG_0842Today was a glorious day on the farm.  Lamont and I enjoyed some work in the field, partly because there’s work that needs doing, but mostly to aid in digestion of our holiday feasts.  We are so incredibly lucky to live in a place where we can grow food year round, and what’s more, the temperature is pleasant for working outside almost all year.  Winter work can be challenging (wet, cool, boots heavy with mud).  But winter is never as stressful as summer farming.  The short days let us leave the field earlier, it’s too cold to plant and usually too wet to weed.  So while we harvest, prune, maintain perennials, catch up on bookkeeping, plan crops, tidy, and organize we also cook more elaborate meals, sleep, and enjoy time with family and friends.

But there’s a big challenge to winter farming that we don’t think gets enough attention: the economics.  We often hear “this region needs more winter crops” and “there’s more demand in the winter”.  This may be true, but there are inherent difficulties.  Due to the realities of temperature and photosynthesis, crops grow much much slower in the fall and winter than they do in the spring and summer.  So even crops that are winter hardy have to stay in the ground much longer than their summer counterparts.  In the ground longer means at risk longer: at risk of damage from frost, wet, wind, slugs, wire worms, cabbage moths, and any number of fungal diseases which love damp conditions.  So, the proportion of a crop that gets culled for aesthetic damage is much higher in the winter than in the summer.  IMG_0840Take these carrots for example.  Beautiful, right?  Now look closer.  Most have a spot or a line, or are split or forked.  What’s a farmer to do?  Cull all the imperfect ones?  Sell at a reduced price?  My cost of production is at least as high if not higher in the winter, so neither option is ideal.  Perhaps I should plant earlier in the fall, dig them up at the beginning of November and store them.  Unfortunately there would be significant loss in storage too, and we’ve never tasted a stored carrot that can come close to a fresh-dug one for taste.  Also each crop has slightly different ideal storage conditions, and on small-scale farms it simply isn’t possible to build multiple storage facilities with different temperatures and humidities.

Last but not least, we’re all spoiled by the variety available year-round.  Yes, many people say they want to eat local food, but when it comes right down to it, most people enjoy their peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, tender lettuces, and broccoli all winter, and will pass by the rutabaga, celeriac, and winter radishes.

Most winter crops are actually planted in the late summer, so in order to harvest in the winter land must be set aside (ie, not planted in more lucrative summer crops).   Furthermore it’s hard on soil to produce crop after crop, so periods of rest and cover crops need to be accounted for.  Given all these considerations, it’s not a surprise that  so many veggie farmers in this region focus on spring and summer crops and look for part-time off-farm work for the winter.

So, why do we fight the uphill battle of year-round farming?  Because it’s awesome!  Every evening that I sit down to a mid-winter meal that’s 100% farm-grown, I’m filled with wonder.  It tastes amazing, it’s healthy, it’s sustainable, and it’s Vancouver Island food security.   We’re absolutely thrilled that Moss St Market is now year-round, and the variety and quantity available each Saturday 10-12 is impressive!  We just ask that you cut us a little slack if the roots don’t look quite as perfect as they do in the summer.  Trust me, they’re precious!

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