Early winter farm to-do list

We’re often asked what we do in the winter when we’re not actively growing vegetables. The answer, is A LOT. This kind of diversified farm has seasonal work throughout the year, both to keep our own household fed & functional and to support the vegetable growing season. Here’s a wordy but far-from-complete brain dump of what we’ve been working on lately and will continue to work on through at least January; these are presented in no particular order.

Finish cleaning up farm
There are a myriad of tasks involved in shutting down the vegetable portion of the farm for winter, including: bundle & hang irrigation lines, mulch empty beds, clean out barns, move harvest & storage containers to house to avoid winter cold damage, move fridges to house for winter produce storage, clean/sharpen tools, oil tool handles, clean up string piles & other stuff that has accumulated in sheds, check the contents of first aid kits and refill as needed, and more.
Occasional harvests
We’ve still been selling winter crops like parsnips, leeks, and turnips to restaurants, requiring harvest & processing work. Come January we’ll do another pulse of this for the first CSA share of 2013, at least for those who’ve signed up by then. Jerusalem artichokes also need to be dug & replanted; if drought didn’t stunt the roots & voles haven’t eaten too many, some may go in the January share. Above left, loyal farm workers Tyler & Eric clean leeks in the field; above right some very nice parsnips bound for Columbia restaurants.
Leaf raking & collection
We harvest fallen leaves from the woods for mulch and as an addition to potting mix. We rake in the fall, let leaves break down in piles in the woods, then collect & haul them the following fall for use as mulch. For potting mix, we let the leaves break down for two full years before bringing them indoors to use for the following spring’s mix. Thus, collecting older leaves & raking new ones are both on the late fall/early winter to-do list.
Firewood prep
This is the time of year we collect firewood from various piles throughout the woods, where we left it to cure last winter. All this gets moved toward the house, sorted by variety (we like to keep low-heat varieties like elm separate from high-heat varieties like locust & oak), and covered. Cutting the next round of firewood happens through the rest of this winter. We’d like to get to the point that we always have a 2 year supply ready to go, but we’re not quite there yet.
Timber work
As always, we have multiple land-clearing projects to start in on. This year’s include, in rough order of priority: finish removing cedar from the orchard slope, finish thinning/clearing several pasture areas to allow more goat-brush to grow, push back trees along the west edge of vegetable field to reduce shade & water competition, clear cedars near packing barn to allow for more parking & equipment storage, do some forest improvement thinning and associated firewood cutting (including removing a number of dead oaks, particularly ones that may become hazards due to locations near walking paths), and so on. We’ve already made a good start on the orchard-clearing work; panorama below shows the remaining swath of cedar to be cleared from this area.Biochar burning
Associated with timber work, we burn a lot of the leftover branches and brush to make biochar. Briefly, this is a form of charcoal that seems to be a very beneficial soil amendment; we make it by burning large piles of brush in pits, which are then covered and reasonably sealed to allow a slow, low-oxygen partial combustion that locks a great deal of carbon into solid form. This turns what would otherwise be a significant waste product (and source of atmospheric carbon) into a useful source of on-farm soil improvement and carbon sink. Images below show Joanna dealing with remaining brush piles from last year’s orchard clearing work.2013 CSA prep
We’ve been putting a lot of work into getting ready for 2013, starting with the January share. Trying to find new members, reminding existing members to  renew (if they wish), setting up the details of the program, organizing our worker list and schedule for next year…a lot goes into the preparations.
Seed orders
Seed catalogs have mostly arrived, and Joanna intends to have our seed order (and thus full 2013 planting plan) finished by the first week of January. In other words, for every variety of crop we grow, we need to decide how much to plant, when to plant, where to plant, and so on. This will be much more straightforward this year compared to last year, as we now have a reasonably solid 10-year rotation plan to draw upon, and a first year of CSA growing under our belt to inform decisions. However, there are always lots of decisions to make, so collectively this is a very time consuming  process.
We’ll need to close our financial books for the year, including confirming that we’ve received payment for all wholesale invoices, chasing down any remaining owed payments from customers, scanning the year’s worth of record sheets of all kinds, analyzing numbers for useful data for future planning, and so much more.
Hog slaughter
We’ve had to wait a long time for cool enough weather for this essential job, but finally got to it this week. Along with the actual slaughtering work, other related tasks include: start hams & bacon curing, separate & render fat into lard, clean & preserve intestines for sausage casings, freeze regular cuts, deal with guts & scraps, use/preserve organs, etc. This is a multi-day process that leaves us wiped out, but well-fed. Below, scalding a hog before scraping, and the finished carcass hung up to cool.Cull old hens
We have a number of older hens who are no longer laying well, and need to be culled from the flock because they’re expensive to keep and we’d rather get food value from them before they get too old and fall sick/die. We’ll be eating a lot of chicken soup this winter, but will have a leaner, more efficient flock by next spring. Given skyrocketing grain prices (organic whole corn alone now costs more than a full feed mix used to) & the ongoing drought, this is an absolutely necessary task.
The early spring weather of 2012 put a premature end to our plans to add significantly more content to the website. Yes, we know it is ridiculous that the menus have more on animal management than on veggies, but a comprehensive treatment of the latter is a big task. Getting back to that work is on the list, along with other web-oriented tasks, such as working out a few ways to streamline the produce survey system for better efficiency. In addition, we’d like to add a web calendar to the website so that we can post planned events and the anticipated distribution schedule, and have a private access component so workers can keep us informed of when they will/won’t be here. The glorious fall weather has made it difficult to get very far on these projects so far.
We’re still actively making compost from the bedding of animals on farm plus other vegetative scraps (such as corn stalks and tomato plants that we cut up around the time of the first frost). Goats have settled into the barn for the winter, so their bedding is now accumulating in a nice layer that will produce a big pile come spring, but the chicken shed was due for a cleaning. We follow organic guidelines that specify that windrow-style compost piles must be maintained at temperatures of 131ºF or greater for fifteen days with five turns during the period. The turning is something that we do manually with a compost fork; the piles are too small to turn effectively with a tractor. We used to worry about whether this was an effective use of time, but once we started to see the results of the compost on plants, that worry went away. We have active compost piles going for much of the year, but after the current piles are done, there will be a lull in active compost making until spring, and it will be a lovely break.

Tired yet? We are, but also greatly enjoy the less-structured schedule this time of year and the chance to work outdoors in comfortable weather.

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