This may be the most frequently asked question we get. Here are some answers!
We don’t grow plants over the winter, but we do keep our flock of laying hens, and we sell eggs year-round. Our hens stay in our nursery for the winter, happily scratching as the ground rarely freezes there. Like during the rest of the year, they need to be opened in the morning, closed at night, watered daily and fed frequently. We also need to remove snow off the greenhouses in big snow events. So, although minimal compared to our main season, we still have farm chores over the winter.
Plan, plan, plan
Planning is critical to any farmer’s mental health. During the summer, we are so focused on production that there is no time or energy available to think deeply. So we do all the thinking upfront during the winter.
For our farm to run smoothly, it is essential that we create a solid crop plan, which contains information such as:
This is all ultimately translated into a task calendar, so that each day from spring to fall, all we need to do is look at our task calendar and try to fit in whatever needs done that day.
Planning is not limited to crops. We have been adding and improving infrastructure every year. During the summer there is no time available to focus on infrastructure, so we try to get as much done as we can over the winter. For example, in the fall and winter of 2021, we built our farm shed. This winter (2022) we are going to improve the shed’s storage capacity, so that everything is neat and tidy when the season starts and we do not waste time and energy finding things. Having an uncluttered work space means having an uncluttered mind.
For projects that require warmer weather, we do all the planning during the winter, so as soon as spring comes we are ready to go and hopefully get them done before late May, when we start harvesting. For example, this year we are going to build a root cellar and a farm store, and install a solar system. Over the winter, we build 3D models and source materials for these projects, so that the building phase is as fast and painless as humanly possible. Even then, projects usually take about twice as much time (and money) as we initially estimate.
Researching and sourcing inputs
Every year we need to bring in some inputs like potting soil, compost, seeds, bags, tools, mulch, chicken feed, etc. And every year we scout the market looking for the most sustainable, responsible and affordable options. We always try to support the triple bottom-line of economic, social and environmental sustainability. This takes a remarkable amount of time and effort.
For example, in 2022 we are moving away from single-use plastic packaging. Finding alternatives that are either reusable or compostable, while maintaining affordability and convenience for our customers is a challenge. Thankfully, there are more and more options available every year.
We are also trying to find or make a potting soil mix that is not dependent on peat, which is not a renewable resource at current harvest rates, and definitely not local to us. This is another great challenge.
We are also always looking for ways to improve our workflow, so we can produce more (or at least the same) amount of produce while working less hours. This also takes quite a bit of research, but we love to be able to express our creativity.
Learning and innovating
Learning is one of the biggest pleasures in life. We try to keep things fresh and try something new every year. For example, in 2022 we are planting a small patch of berry bushes and a small patch of cut flowers, both intended as pick-your-own.
Selecting the right varieties, learning how to properly care for them, and designing the layout of these patches to make sure they are not only accessible and beautiful but also practical, takes a lot of time and brain power. It is fun as anything though! Another very fun thing we get to do over the winter is flip through seed catalogs and decide what new varieties we want to try.
Winter is the time of year when we build bee, bird and bat houses to connect people with Nature and support biodiversity, which is one of the main reasons we exist.
Spreading the word
Producing great food is only part of running a farm. We also need to make sure that people looking for this food know about it and how they can get it. Every winter we spend a significant amount of time updating our website, creating new offerings, and spreading the word.
We also take advantage of the winter season to write recipes, veggie info-graphics for our newsletters, and blog posts like this! We hope you will find them entertaining and insightful. Please let us know in the comments below what kind of topics you would like us to write about!
Keeping in shape
Farming is a very physically demanding job. Winter gives us time to research and implement new routines to take care of our bodies. We are always looking for ways to improve our posture, our stamina and our strength. We also take advantage of the quiet season to go to the dentist, chiropractor, optometrist and all those things that normal people do.
Part of taking care of our bodies is resting. We usually take 1-3 weeks of low physical activity around the end of the year, although there is always something to do to have just enough exercise.
We start our first crop, ginger, in late January. Heat-loving crops such as tomatoes and peppers, as well as the first successions of field crops like lettuce and beets follow in March. When late March hits, the soil may be workable and we will be planting the first successions of spinach, carrots, turnips, radishes and arugula. So even though we don’t sell veggies over the winter, there is a lot of planting that needs to be done to have things ready to sell in May.
Life is short and a daring adventure, so we try to have as much fun as possible. Our favourite winter activities are cross-country skiing and catching up with friends.
While Joanna has a full-time, year-round job, I (Alberto) have been teaching courses focused on ecology and conservation over the last 3 years at Carleton University, mostly during the winter. I absolutely love interacting with new generations of students, who I must say seem more and more engaged and aware of social and environmental issues every year, which gives me hope for the future. Teaching also keeps my academic brain up to date, and it has been a very welcomed income while starting the farm. Being a contract instructor means having no job security though, and future teaching opportunities are uncertain. I will continue sharing knowledge with, trying to inspire, and learning from, curious minds of all ages for as long as I am alive, whether under the academic umbrella or outside of it. If you think there is room for collaboration, please do get in touch!
We also offer consulting services to gardeners and other farmers.