By Teresa Vanek
With a shout of “Viva la lechuga!” we sowed the first seeds in the greenhouse today.
We started radishes, cilantro and lettuces in five narrow beds. By late April our efforts will yield a bounty of delicious roots and greens that will receive a hero’s welcome at the farmers’ market. For my husband and me at Red Tail Farm, it’s this kind of reception, an audience of eager eaters and the buy-local crowd, that keeps us working on our farm through the winter months.
People can’t help but ask, “What do you do all winter?”
Well, it’s not all about nodding by the fire with a good book. For the past three years we have been building ourselves a straw-bale house while we farm. Winter is the time we can work on it nearly every day, unlike the other seasons when we work on our house three days a week and farm the other four. There’s something nearly relaxing about working away at one major undertaking at a time, and we would love to have that single-project focus, but the farm has demanded our attention as well.
For starters, there was our last agricultural act of 2007: Just a few days before Christmas we climbed in the tractor and went out to remove a foot of snow from the field so we could locate the parsnips we promised to a winter CSA.With mud and snow up to our overall bibs, we coaxed and cursed the sweet white roots out of the ground with pitchforks and fingers.
On winter evenings and in other spare moments I bottled and labeled the rest of our fall honey crop. The earth may have been resting, but we certainly weren’t!
Even on a mild mid-February day it is a stretch to picture the fertility of the Finger Lakes’ summer. And yet that’s a requirement of the farmer.
In late winter we sit surrounded by slippery mounds of seed catalogs and imagine the next season into being. Some decisions are simple math, aided by the growing and marketing notes we made last year, while others are purely emotional, even aesthetic. Won’t a pile of dusky, gleaming eggplants really set off the tomatoes and squash in our market display come August?
Many crops are such reliable staples, like carrots and arugula, that they are immediately enlisted, but we always itch to try something new. Maybe because of my fascination with botanical forms and life cycles my fancy attaches itself to something dubiously worthwhile— this year I’m drawn to growing fresh Lima beans. These outliers can make for a battle with your fellow farmer/spouse. As many times as I’ve been wrong (like the year I gave valuable real estate in the greenhouse to some truly miserable okra) I have to haggle for these experimental crops to keep my self-respect.
Some of my best days as a farmer are the ones when I feel like a gardener again, and I wonder if we should just concentrate on growing for our own subsistence. But as our farmers’ market season gathers momentum I know we’ll feel again like the fortunate couple who get to spend their days outside keeping company with the farm dog and honeybees, with the fresh air and the bird song.
Teresa Vanek is a native Ithacan who spent many years abroad before coming home to the farm.
This article originally appeared in our Spring 2008 edition.