Thoughts on Planning for Winter and Spring

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You’re probably scratching your head trying to figure out where I’m going with this column since it’s only October, although your fields are full of pumpkins and the woods are dressing in their finest tapestry of autumn colors. When I was growing up, the time interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas seemed to drag on forever and I thought that Christmas day would never arrive. That was before I grew up; now I ponder where did 30 years go, let alone a few weeks?

Even though it’s only October, before you know it winter will be upon us, and spring will follow right behind. Another growing cycle will begin again. Like many of you, I’m thinking about getting some projects done before the snow flies, such as getting my high tunnel up in time to get a few crops planted in it to enjoy during the winter months. I remember telling growers, tongue in cheek, at various winter meetings that my colleagues and I could develop programs to keep them busy 13 months a year. On the other hand, I would also explain that some down time is needed to reflect, refresh and renew oneself and one’s family, as intensive vegetable farming can indeed wear one out – especially during a trying year, whether battling COVID, weather, insects, diseases, markets and more.

Let’s look down the road to the end of 2021 and into 2022. In many regions of the country, the final vegetable crops in the fields will be harvested and then the fields put to bed for winter (hopefully with a cover crop). If you have employed high tunnel technology on your farm, then you might have a winter crop in the tunnels that will run into winter. As my good friend Dr. Matt Kleinhenz, Extension vegetable specialist at Ohio State University, has expressed often, “A high tunnel is just a big refrigerator for selected vegetable crops in the winter months.” This is where my expression of farming for 13 months originated – as we began to move into more and more high tunnel production around the country. In warmer parts of the country, crops are being planted for late spring, early summer harvest.

It is good to keep a garden notebook. Growers can then review it in the quiet of the winter by the woodstove in preparation for the coming growing season. With computers and associated computer programs, one can certainly keep detailed records on each field located on the farm, varieties planted, sources of seeds, dates of planting or transplanting, maintenance (application of mulch, drip tape, fertilizer, liming, cultivation, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, irrigation events), notes on crop performance/yield, harvest dates, etc. Good recordkeeping is vital to making informed decisions on the operation for the coming year. Information generated each year is only as useful as what is being input into the system. I also know that during the heat of the season that inputting data may not be a high priority, but it will pay dividends down the road.

I remember that many growers use to (and still do) go south in the winter months to take a break and do the reflection, renewal and refreshing on the beach. It’s important to think about this, especially for family operations where everyone has been going at 110% all season long and need a break to regroup before beginning another season. Before you know it, transplants will need to be started for the new cropping season.

Winter is also a prime time when farm equipment needs to be checked out and maintenance completed to be ready for the upcoming season. Not having equipment up to snuff will certainly set back one’s timetable for spring soil preparation and planting. Maybe decisions on purchasing new equipment or good used equipment need to be considered at this time. We see more and more new technology being incorporated into machinery used on the farm.

I always thought that winter commodity meetings, such as the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market Expo, Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention, Southeast fruit and vegetable meetings, the Empire State Producers’ Expo and the New England Vegetable & Fruit Conference, were a great chance for both socialization and learning and should be undertaken by growers as part of their yearly professional development. This is a chance for growers to compare notes and get updates on the latest research and developments in the field of crop production in their region. It’s also a time to visit with the myriad commercial vendors that have booths at these meetings. In addition, there are still local multi-county winter meetings that one can attend that are more specifically oriented toward one’s local conditions. Winter meetings are also a chance for growers to get their pesticide credits for their pesticide licenses.

As you can see, one’s calendar will fill up quickly and before you know it you will be starting transplants in the spring, planting inside your high tunnels, breaking ground for spring planting, obtaining and organizing labor, and off you go in the 2022 season. The one constant during these years that fly is that folks must eat, and farmers are the ones who make sure that food is provided. The saying that one should thank a farmer every day is as true today as it was when the first farmer sold his produce to awaiting customers. As you ponder time intervals, know that agriculture – and in particular vegetable production – is the most strategic industry in the U.S. and the world. No matter what occupation one finds themselves involved in, the first thing they need to do before they do anything is eat.

You can contact me with feedback on my columns or ideas for future columns at wlamont@psu.edu.

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