Just because the fields are plowed down and snow has fallen doesn’t mean our hard-working farmers get to take a long winter’s nap! From administrative work to planning the next harvest and protecting the soil, there’s no such thing as an off-season for folks who grow crops and raise animals.
If you drive through Washington County, New York, or any farming community in the Northeast during the winter, you might catch a glimpse of green under the freshly fallen snow. After the summer or fall harvest is over, it’s time to plant cover crops. These hardy varieties of clover, grains, and grasses provide a variety of benefits depending on a farm’s goals for the next season. Cover crops can prevent soil erosion, reduce weeds, and much more.
Many farmers use this time to plan their next season of crops, too. Choosing the right cover crop can set up a better summer ahead, mitigating soil-borne diseases or supplying depleted nutrients for warmer-weather plants.
While New York mostly falls in a very cut-and-dry growing and not-growing season, there are plenty of ways our local farms can keep food on the table and at the farmer’s market. Root vegetables like winter squash and potatoes are grown to last well into the cold, winter months. The same goes for onions, garlic, and locally-grown apples! With the right cold storage, you can shop for fresh, local produce all winter long. Other farmers use hoop houses and low tunnels to keep the ground just warm enough for vegetables like kale, cabbage, beets, and broccoli (they prefer temperatures in the 40s or 50s) to thrive.
Like farmers with traditional fields to manage, those with orchards remain hard at work even after the fruits have been picked. Apples, cherries, blueberries: they all require a good, hearty chill between growing seasons. It allows the bushes and trees to store energy for the upcoming season, leading to better yields and more flavorful fruit.
The winter, when the plants are in a dormant, resting state, is also the best time for pruning.
Carefully shaping and trimming each tree or bush is essential to help with balanced growth and plant health! Prune too little and lower branches might not receive adequate sunlight, leaving growers with less fruit, lopsided growth, or even damage or pests. Prune too much, and… well, you’ll lose out on the crop’s potential. There is also winter packing and storage to be done, ensuring grocery stores and markets will have enough stock until the next harvest. Many farmers also make fruit products like ciders, jams, desserts, and more to sell in the “off” season.
The winter season also allows many farmers to attend workshops or conferences, as there is a reprieve from some farm duties. Fewer hands on deck at all hours means more time to explore what’s happening around the state. The New York Farm Show takes place in February, bringing hundreds of exhibitors to the state with the latest farm equipment, supplies and services, and industry-specific supplies.
For maple producers, winter is go-time. As the summer comes to an end, farmers head into their sugarbushes to examine tap lines, test equipment, and plan their season while the trees head into dormancy. The trees store starch created during this time to retain energy (through photosynthesis!), which will be converted to sugar in the spring — sugar that will eventually become syrup!
Maple trees only produce sap in the late winter, when temperatures are exactly right to get things flowing. Through pressure differences inside the tree, caused by temperatures cycling above and below freezing, maple sap starts moving through the tree. When the internal pressure of the tree is greater than the atmospheric pressure, the sap starts looking for an exit point: a broken branch, a knot, or a tap sitting over a sap bucket.
Once that sap is collected it is boiled until enough water evaporates for it to be called maple syrup, around 33% water and 67% sugar. The end of “sugar season” is a signal to many farmers that Spring is just around the corner, and so is another busy growing season!