Oh, December. Cold days and short nights invite thoughts of holiday gatherings and hot chocolate by the fire. It's the time of year for baking, shopping and planning a little time off. Or, you know, fixing the tines on the rototiller.
Even with bare trees and brown meadows announcing indoor time, our area farmers aren't spending winter sitting in the living room with their feet up. Between catching up from summer, maintaining winter fields and preparing for spring, the long cold months are not as "down" on the farm as you might imagine.
Traditionally during this part of the year, agricultural work shifts to maintaining or upgrading equipment and planning for the next growing season. As New Town Farms' Sammy Koenigsberg points out, "You can't service your tractor when you're using it." But thanks to our region's temperate climate, and growing demand from markets and chefs, most local growers raise food all year long.
It might surprise you to learn that some winter farming starts in the heat of the summer. While still managing warm-weather harvests back in August, Koenigsberg was already preparing the soil and seeding his cool-weather crops. He and his family have been raising food on their Waxhaw farm for more than 20 years, so he knows well the quiet changeover from one season to the next. "Most farm work has a nice rhythm," he says.
Even crops growing inside modern greenhouses march to the changes of the seasons. In Tega Cay, Mindy Robinson of Tega Hills Farm uses the fall equinox to time her changeover from summer, starting winter lettuce cultivars in early September. With late summer harvests still underway, her limited greenhouse space dictates strict management. "Sometimes it's hard to pull something out when it's doing really well," she says, "but you have to be ready to change it up."
For Koenigsberg, space management means rotating active fields with those left fallow to recover from the drain of summer's "heavy feeders" like tomatoes. Instead of feeding us, cover crops like clover or rye feed the soil by preventing erosion and providing additional nutrients. Seeded in late summer for winter growth, they will be plowed into the dirt to make way for spring food crops.
Meanwhile, other fields boast marketable food crops through all but the bitterest winters. Traditional Southern greens like kale and collards come to market all winter, along with broccoli, brussels sprouts and lettuces. To protect them from the deepest freezes, Koenigsberg erects fabric row covers pulled tight over hoops. Though they add extra costs to his budget, "a few degrees of increased temperature ... can be the life and death difference for some of these crops," he says.
Even Robinson's heated greenhouses require additional care as the temperature drops. Though each one is equipped with a natural gas heating system, the lettuces are also sensitive to humidity. So end covers have to be raised and lowered, while husband Mark keeps an eye on all those heaters. "Especially on the nights that are going to be down below freezing," she says, "he gets up every couple of hours to go check on things." So much for settling down for a long winter's nap.
Even so, with the end of crops like cucumbers and squash blossoms, harvesting pressures ease for Robinson as cold weather sets in. In Koenigsberg's fields, winter's slower growth and freezing temperatures give him a breather from fertilizing and managing most insect pests. So what do farmers do with that little extra time?
Like any professional, Koenigsberg keeps up to date on the latest developments in his field, whether by catching up on reading or attending conferences. Robinson's focus, on the other hand, turns to bookkeeping chores ignored during summer's rush. "My goal this year is to finish my paperwork before my children get done with school," she says.
For both, winter's first priority is spending time with family. Although their spouses and children work alongside them all year, 14-hour summer workdays don't really count as quality time. With the onset of shorter days and longer nights, Koenigsberg says, "You can finally have dinner when the rest of the world does."
That also allows him the luxury of dining at some of the restaurants that buy his products. For him, a meal crafted from local ingredients by a talented chef is more than a special treat. It is an invitation to renewal for the following spring.