Fall is just as busy, and sometimes feels busier, than summer. The growing areas are managed just as much, with the addition of all sorts of other cool-weather seasonal projects. Slowly things calm down as given areas/tasks are finished for the year, but it really takes until nearly Thanksgiving for us to feel the effects. Here’s a wordy look at some of the different things we’re doing this time of year on our very diversified farm. Though it seems like a lot, we enjoy most of it, and it all ties into our fundamental goals of personal independence, active outdoor work, and excellent food.
As much work as regular weekly harvests for market and restaurants are, there’s a large pulse of salvage work that comes with the hard freezes. We are very serious about minimizing waste, and refuse to just dump or abandon food we worked hard to grow. It takes extra time to strip most of the usable immature peppers, green tomatoes, and more from plants; bring in all winter squash and other crops; and do what we can to preserve them. From freezing and canning lots of relishes and preserves, to regular batches of food dehydration, to simple space management in our storage areas, fall harvest creates a lot of extra work. Below, a small portion of the pre-freeze harvest extravaganza
Growing area cleanup & prep
As individual crops finish for the year, any remaining plant material is pulled out and either fed to the animals (e.g. beans, peppers, corn/sorghum) or hauled off for composting (e.g. tomatoes, zucchini). Below right, frost-killed tomato plants waiting to be pulled along with their trellising. Irrigation lines are pulled, drained, bundled, and stored in the barn rafters for next year. In some cases we’ll spread and incorporate aged goat manure, depending on the past and future crop & fertility rotation in that bed. We don’t like any growing areas in bare soil for long, so when possible beds are either planted in winter cover crop like rye, vetch, and/or oats; or mulched with straw or aged leaves. We’re moving aggressively to limit our off-farm straw purchases, so raking fresh and spreading aged leaves becomes a more important fall task every year (see below).
Leaf mulch collection
Mulch is a very important aspect of our farm management, especially as we refuse to use plastic sheeting for weed control (too much oil, too much money, too much waste). Natural soil covers like straw or leaves help retain moisture, suppress weeds, add organic matter to the soil, and protect against winter freezing of soil and winter crops. We’re trying to limit our off-farm straw purchases for financial and agricultural reasons (last year we spent $1,000 on local straw, which carries a lot of obnoxious weed seeds and is still grown under conditions not entirely known to us). So every year we spend more time in the autumn woods, raking tracts of leaves into piles which are allowed to sit for a year, gently decomposing into a much denser, nutrient rich material that is more efficient to collect, handle, and spread. This leaf mold (after being aged for a couple more years) also forms a core component of our homemade potting mix (again saving money). Above left, a lovely pile of this condensed material.
When we calculate the time we spend raking and managing leaves, compared to the off-farm cash flow of purchasing large amounts of straw, it comes out close to even, without considering the side benefits of (a) a clean, known source for the leaves with few weed seeds and no unknown additives, (b) better soil nutrients from decomposing leaves than straw, (c) less fossil fuel use for short truck runs of leaves from our own woods than the large machinery needed to plant, harvest, bale, and transport straw from off-farm, and (d) a more reliable commodity that’s less subject to price, weather, and demand fluctuations.
There is a surprising amount of overall cleanup to do on the farm before winter comes. Collecting various tools, hoses, and other items that might be sitting around; moving equipment under cover; collecting and stacking T-posts, trellis panels, and other infrastructure; collecting all bits of trellis string; staging hay and feed where we want them; preparing winter quarters for animals; tool maintenance and storage (cleaning, sharpening, oiling, etc.), and more.
Overwintering crop planting
There are many items that can be, or need to be, transplanted or seeded in fall to achieve the proper growing season. Garlic is an obvious example, but there are various other alliums (some onions, garlic scallions), greens (collards, kale, sorrel), and others (strawberries) that we manage in the fall for spring or even summer harvest. Winter cover crops are another important category. So even while the farm overall is shutting down, we’re still putting new crops in the ground into November. Below left, a decent stand of oats that will eventually winter-kill into soil cover. Below right, ex-pepper and -edamame beds that have been manured and readied for fall garlic planting next week.
Seed saving & cleaning
We save our own seed for a growing list of crops & varieties, and many of the tasks related to seed saving occur in the fall. Some seeds (such as dill and cilantro) were collected over the summer, set aside during the busy season, and now need to be winnowed with a fan to sort the seed from stems, dust, etc. Summer squash seeds need to be scooped out from the hard, winter-squash-like baseball bats that we intentionally allowed to grow to absurd size, even as we shuddered each time we looked at the monstrous overgrowns (or realized that we could still sell them for $1/each at market…). Melon seeds that we set aside from perfect melons, rinsed, and left to dry need to be packed up. A selection of the best onions that we grow need to be selected and set aside to replant for seed next year. Tomato seeds from a variety that we really like need to be fermented and saved, just in case we can’t buy more seed for it. Our winter-keeping tomatoes
need to be set out carefully on shelves to store, so we can save seed from the longest storing ones come mid-winter. With some crops, such as cowpeas, the seed and the food are one and the same, and a nice selection of seed simply needs to be separated out from the eating supply. Below, saving summer squash seeds from a mature specimen.
Every fall and winter we work to clear more overgrown land
(mostly cedars), seeking both to bring pasture back into production and to generate the lumber and firewood we need to maintain and build the farm. Much of this work also has environmental benefits, from increasing bird/wildlife habitat and plant diversity to decreasing soil erosion through thicker ground cover once the dense cedars are gone. Last year we had an extra push to get started on logging, as I needed fresh lumber to build our goat/dairy barn before winter weather arrived. This year I have a similar goal, to build a bigger and better chicken house that can accommodate our growing flock. I have a milling date set with our portable sawmill folks at the end of the month, and need to get enough ground cleared and enough logs down to be ready for milling, then construction. This includes pouring the foundations while nights are still mostly above freezing. There are many more areas to work on over the winter, but the chicken-shed-specific work has a high priority right now. Below, the future site of a long-term chicken house and pasture.
If you want goat milk, you have to get goats pregnant (rather, a buck has to). We try to breed our goats in November, aiming for an April kidding date. This involves hosting a buck for a month, as goats only go into heat for a day or so every three weeks. Pasturing the does with a buck for a month generally gives us two shots at successful breeding. We don’t actually have to handle the herd much differently, but it is another management item to pay attention to this time of year.
As on all traditional farms, fall and early winter are meat season. We do all our own meat processing on the farm, because we don’t want to pay anyone else to do it, like the ability to make cuts just the way we want, can use more of the interesting parts this way (like saving hog casings for sausage), and minimize any stress on the animals since there’s no transportation or fear. We’ll only be doing one goat kid this year, as the other two are does which we intend to breed as future milkers. But there’s a much larger pig than last year, several rounds of developing roosters, and one or more deer once the season opens in mid-November (given how many we’ve seen in the last few weeks, I’m quite antsy for this). Prepping for this work includes making enough freezer space for all the meat, ensuring we have freezer paper and other supplies on hand, and watching the weather for appropriate multi-day conditions. We also try to have most other weather-dependent farm work done, so we can take advantage of butchering weather without competing needs.
Just getting the house ready for winter takes a bit of time. Collecting and moving firewood into position, having the chimney swept, moving storage foods (onions, potatoes, garlic, apples, etc.) into the back rooms which we don’t heat and which stay at a nice stable 40 degrees all winter, changing out sets of seasonal clothing, etc.
I’ve been putting extra time into making rounds of hard cheese to store over winter; we already have more wheels of these waxed and aging than years past, with up to two more months of milking to go. We also freeze milk to get us through the non-milking months; this works well enough for basic cheeses, yogurts, and baking.
Normal farm work
Among all this seasonal stuff, we’re still harvesting regularly for biweekly market and weekly restaurant sales, including all the container washing, produce handling, calling around, etc. that accompanies these jobs. There’s still weeding and watering to be managed, various daily chores, and so on. Like I said, fall is just as busy as summer, just with shorter days. Longer nights can mean more sleep, but also unintentionally late nights as we stay up trying to get cooking, office work, and housework done now that daylight is too precious to waste. That’s life.