What Does a Farmer Do in December?

By Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm, courtesy of Capay Valley Farm Shop

Each season on the farm has its own tempo. The harvest overwhelms everyone’s attention for most of the year. The lambing season in February is another high point. Paperwork and regulatory reports flood through the door at year’s end. Animal chores are constant every day of the year. What are the Full Belly farmers doing during the next couple of months?

old tractor in the snowIn December and January, there is usually a chance to shift some attention away from the harvest and into projects that were set aside for a free moment. We give more attention right now to the big picture. We can take a look back and learn from the year’s experience. We can talk about our crew, the growth or shrinking of markets, the price of a box of melons, the pressure from feral pigs, rising cost of compost and fuel, and our plans to build new infrastructure and take on new projects.

This is also the time that we devote a lot of attention to perennials. All of the orchards must be pruned before they start to flower in the spring. Sometimes the trees need to be sprayed for diseases. Oaktree seeds are collected and planted, hedgerows are assessed and plants are ordered to fill in the gaps.

Each fall we think about the crops to be planted, the compost and cover crops and animal grazing to be rotated through the farm, the equipment that will be needed, the CSA boxes to fill to the brim. A map of Full Belly Farm shows 46 different fields, all managed from season to season with rotations of crops and cover crops. Sometimes a field will come out of summer production and go straight into a fall crop. Other times a summer crop is followed immediately by a cover crop which probably means that it will be ready for a new crop in the late spring or even the following summer.

It’s easy to come up with a theoretical planting plan for the spring and summer, but in fact, it will depend on the weather and field conditions. Things can get all snarled up when it’s cold and wet! Nevertheless, we do have to plan in the fall, to have enough ground ready to allow space for our January and February plantings. Weather willing, we will start planting spring crops in mid-January and continue through the spring with a planting cycle for the greens, beets, carrots, and broccoli that repeats itself every two or three weeks.

This fall, a big field of flowers was planted in between rainstorms. The flowers are emerging from the soil, with crews going out to weed whenever there is a bit of spare time. Other fields are planted to about 80 acres of cover crop and grains like wheat, barley, and oats. Most of the fall plantings of veggies to take us through the winter are done, with perhaps one more planting of broccoli to go. Once the planting is done, it will be weeding, harvesting and checking the weather for the next few months until planting starts up again.

When I asked Full Belly partner Andrew how he would answer the question, “what does a farmer do in December?” he said that this is the only month of the year that he doesn’t think about tomatoes! Planting in the greenhouse doesn’t start until January and in November the plants were finally all pulled down and the stakes came out of the ground.

One thing that farmers and gardeners have in common is seed catalogs. Rich plans to have his seed ready so that when the weather breaks he can get out in the field without delay. He looks through the seed catalogs and thinks about what we liked in the previous years. Was there enough diversity for the CSA boxes? Is there something new that we should try? Last year our new melon was the Goddess (a replacement for the Monsanto-owned Ambrosia). This year it may be a bit more of the bicolor corn, or a really good small (personal size) red watermelon.

Judith Redmond is co-owner of Full Belly Farm.

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