Winter is the season of rest. Winter is a busy season of work. If that seems contradictory, we understand. But like much of farming, it is just one of those "both-and" conditions we are starting to get used to.
A lot of people think we take winter off. That maybe we sneak off to Bali to work with chocolate makers and coffee farmers we knew from life-before-farming (we'd like to do that at some point), or perhaps that we've taken a sojourn south to the high desert on a quest to find the best varieties of roasting peppers. We'd like to do that too.
But we are mostly here, and that is good. We take time to rest, a little better this winter as we finally have a warm and cozy space in our yurt (a Kickstarter update is coming soon). We get more sleep than in the growing season. We finally made it to dinner at the house of farm members who first invited us years ago. We've taken the time to bake some cookies, had enough friends visit to catch a whopper of a winter cold (and reminded ourselves as we slept it off that it's just another way of being connected to our community, embracing the common germs).
We've been reading books. Or rather we've been devouring books as if we'd been starved of stories for far too long. Everything from sociological analysis of the southern border, to soil re-mineralization, to indigenous knowledge and local food, to straight-up entertaining novels and even at least one kid's book, we've been gulping it down by the woodstove in these dark evenings. Winter is the season for stories.
It's also the season for repairs. Old metal in a chicken waterer, and other the things, finally give out and burst at the seams. We take regular trips to the welder's shop, for old repairs and new collaborations. I spend time online ordering sprockets and stainless steel bolts. It's a time when things sometimes work and sometimes don't. After making space in the schedule for a full day of research, online orders, and online classes, we find the internet is sputtering worse than our late Russian tractor. We pivot and spend the day instead learning-by-trying, to replace a leaking radiator hose on the truck. We high-five the next morning when no drips are visible on the shop floor (and wow, do we appreciate that shop and its wood stove for winter repairs).
It's a season for building and improving systems. A few weeks ago the project was a 5-ton grain bin, farm-built from extension plans from the 1960's. Feeding our chickens over the past weeks has gotten so much easier, faster, and cleaner. There's no chance of wild birds getting into our organic grain now. We can purchase enough bulk feed to last 5 months. Before that, we had a quick run of small carpentry projects: a compost shed for household composting, skirting and decking for the perimeter of the yurt. When we list them all we understand why we are tired. Pouring 45 bags of cement before freeze-up. It's our building season, which boggles our professional builder friends, whose busy time of framing and building is in summer.
Jean-Martin Fortier, one of our mentors (and part of the online class we are taking this winter), says that winter is about turning up the heat. 'Getting everything right so the summer can go smoothly. We hope it works.
We've also started hauling and shipping in supplies: combining big bulky orders with other farmers to save on freight, picking up wax boxes by the truckload (we re-use used wax boxes for our chefs and co-op deliveries, and market), and lumber. Oh, the lumber. We use piles of it -- both new and a lot of reclaimed lumber. We'll soon start the construction on one or two small cabins, pending cashflow, for seasonal help. And next week we’ll be hauling in the steel ribs for the fourth and most likely the final tunnel in our lineup. Before the government shut down, we got notice that we’d qualified for cost-sharing from the NRCS (National Resource Conservation Service), so we’ve commenced with material gathering for that. Winter is hauling-and-gathering season. It's also when our budget gets stretched thin, so we are thinking a lot about core things: the farm vision for 2019, our income needs, and balance. We spend hours each day in our barn loft office, working on getting this right. Much of the wood to heat the barn came from farm friends, and while we hear the coolers opening and closing downstairs while we work, we are reminded of all the farm magic this past year.
There's one special item of note. Just before Christmas a mysterious card with a sweet greeting and a fold of cash appeared in the mail. Mary and I used that for a Goodwill shopping spree, some yurt home finishing projects, and we still had enough left over to purchase bulk cookie making ingredients for friends and neighbors. The giver of the card wished to remain anonymous, and so we refrain from sleuthing or too much hypothesizing, to respect that wish. And in a beautiful way, it casts a sweet wide glow of potential as we acknowledge how many wonderful people in our lives it could possibly have come from. Other treats arrived, some with names and notes, and we are grateful for all.
It's also, as every season is, chicken season. (This section from Mary's perspective, as Noah is too deeply embedded in the flocks for unbiased journalism). With just plants to tend, a farmer could choose to take a bit of complete winter down-time. Chickens, not so much. Noah manages the laying flock with a blend of deep affectionate caring (one could say fussing-over) and strictly regimented schedules. It's an odd blend of pre-school teacher and drill sergeant that is hard to describe. But believe me, nothing gets in the way of 10 am chicken hour, the appointed time for feeding and morning egg collection. Unless, of course, he has to drive over to Idaho to pick up a reworked mobile home frame to be the base of, you guessed it, yet another mobile chicken barn. In that case I offer of course to take on the chicken chores for the day, assuming I understood the basics given that I hear about every detail of chicken care every day. Bad move--this duty is not for amateurs, and apparently I have not been taking notes. Through a slight misunderstanding (Noah had not done the morning feeding before he left like I assumed) and a few small mistakes in the order of things, I found myself trying to collect eggs amongst what can only be described as a mob. A mob of hungry, thirsty, rioting hens pecking at my every item of clothing, overturning egg baskets, and creating general mayhem. I got it under control, but not before one small mental breakdown, one medium hip injury, two dozen broken eggs, and a concerned phone call from Noah in response to my furious chicken-blaming text message. Seriously folks, this laying hen business is harder than it looks. We agreed I'd get better training before the time I needed to fill in; after all, our farm-sitter Hannah got a 5-page manual and several days of drills before we were willing to leave the farm in her care to attend a friend's wedding and family festivities on the West Coast at the end of December.
Despite my one rough day, the flocks are producing well right on through winter, and the farmstore is loaded with eggs. You might not see Noah, but he's likely hovering somewhere nearby: manning the rigging on the ventilation wings that regulate humidity and air flow in the movable barns, bringing more alfalfa hay for them to forage or straw to fluff up their bedding, or preparing to move them to new ground once again.
As we continue on in our winter season of so-many-things, you'll start to hear from us a bit more often. We'll be reaching out to farm members to discuss how their experience was last year, making a few tweaks to our feedbag program, and opening up farm membership sign-ups in early February. We're planning, ordering seeds and supplies, and trying to make the most of our season of learning and reflection.
One of the biggest things we see whenever we pause to reflect is that none of this farming life would be possible without all of you. And so, again, we thank you for your support in all seasons. We hope you are embracing your season too (and we provide, below, a recipe for squash pie to help you do so…), and we look forward to continuing to connect throughout the season.
With warmth and winter squash,
Noah and Mary