We’re feeling the restorative effects of a balmy late fall day. After a chilly and windy beginning of the week, with winds so high that the livestock were dehydrating just standing around outside, a string of sunny days, with temperatures pushing 60 degrees Fahrenheit, has been almost enough to deceive one into thinking that the bitterness of winter may never come.
That pleasant fantasy belongs in the same category as the expectation that a flea market purchase of last summer will turn out to be an Old Master for which Chinese billionaires and Saudi sheiks will compete at Sotheby’s. One can’t indulge it for very long. There are too many reminders of what is really about to set in. The mostly bare trees, the insistent hunger of our grazing animals for hay to replace the now unsatisfying diet afforded them by the pasture, and the chill that descends as soon as the sun is within shouting distance of the horizon, all serve to banish the illusion.
While winter will indeed bring a halt to many of our activities, there are a number of reasons why we won’t simply be “buttoning down” the farm, which is what a high school buddy of mine told me he was doing one fall on his farm a couple of hours west of here. For one, unlike those who purchase feeder livestock in the spring and slaughter them in late summer, our decision to breed at least some of our animals dictates that we work through the winter. The week after we returned from Turkey we welcomed an utterly adorable new calf to the menagerie, and there is always the risk that one of our Ossabaw sows farrows in the fall. We can look to simplify the work, but not to eliminate it, as these critters and their parents demand to be fed, watered and cared for.
Yet another reason for our year round activity lies in our dedicated passion for eating our own produce, fresh whenever possible. In this quest we rely heavily on the lessons of two books of contrasting themes but ultimate unity of purpose.
One is Eliot Coleman’s ‘The Winter Harvest Handbook,” recommended by a number of of our customers after Peter wrote about how the joys of our greenhouse produce were tempered by the costs of heating the greenhouse. The erudite Mr. Coleman, through study of urban farm markets of a century ago and his own experimentation with mobile greenhouses in coastal Maine, has developed techniques for growing at least some fresh produce all year round in cold houses.
The other book is Nancy Chioffi and Gretchen Mead’s “Keeping the Harvest,” by authors passionate about finding the most effective ways to preserve what has been grown when at its harvestable peak.
Coleman’s book pulls in one direction, toward winter farming. It has inspired me to plant the vegetables he describes as ideally suited to a winter-long harvest in the greenhouse. We now adapt his techniques, installing row covers within the greenhouse, to give the plants a second layer of protection and create the conditions for growth with minimal expenditure of fuel. Our Hudson Valley farm can supply us with sorrel, parsley, coriander, Swiss chard, lettuce and escarole, among other greens, straight through the winter, as if we are in South Carolina.
Chioffi and Mead’s book pulls in the other direction, toward preserving. But since I’ve found so many of our past preserving endeavors to have gone to waste (it seems neither of us really fancies the string beans and peppers we’ve frozen years ago, still sitting in labeled bags in the freezer), I’ve been particularly drawn to their suggestions for “storing” produce outdoors in situ. We are busy now mulching in deep straw or leaves the parts of our garden and yard that might supply us with fresh produce all winter. The bed of carrots, the stands of Jerusalem artichokes, and the hills of leeks are all being put in deep blankets to keep the ground from freezing hard, and to allow us to pull away the cover, dig and harvest all winter — at least if the winter is less severe than last year’s.
Between what we plant now to grow for winter under Coleman’s tutelage and what’s already grown that we cover in place as directed by Chioffi and Mead, we have the basics for our vegetable needs. Add to that the acorn squash, pumpkins, garlic and assorted other items we’ve stowed in the basement pantry, the cucumbers, beets and varied other vegetables we’ve pickled, the tomatoes, tomatillos, grated squash and pesto that we do like to use from the freezer, and what we’ve learned is the miracle of Brussels sprouts—if left on the stalk, they seem to maintain their edibility through the deepest of freezes without protection—we will, I hope, continue to be free of supermarket dependency for our vegetable needs through spring. Though the early dusk and the chill lend a certain melancholy to even the balmiest November day, the thought that winter no longer cuts our access to our own produce warms my spirit.