Archive for Friday, January 27, 2012

Food: A dead time for farmers? Not quite

MAD Farm's Dan Phelps harvests some heads of lettuce in a hoop house garden. Phelps said he'd planned on growing and selling greens in the winter, but that this mild winter has made it that much easier.

MAD Farm's Dan Phelps harvests some heads of lettuce in a hoop house garden. Phelps said he'd planned on growing and selling greens in the winter, but that this mild winter has made it that much easier.

January 27, 2012, 7:10 p.m.

Updated: February 8, 2012, 12:00 a.m.

The weather lately might not prove it, but it is full-blown winter out there.

And whether the mercury hovers near 50 (like this week’s afternoons) or 5 (like points last winter), it’s still winter. And no one knows this fact better than local farmers.

They work hard day in and day out from weeks before the last frost up until Thanksgiving, planting, harvesting and caring for food that nourishes many in Douglas County. But that doesn’t mean farmers spend the winter on a sandy beach or even in their pajamas.

“We usually try to go to Hawaii and stuff if possible,” jokes cattleman Mark Wulfkuhle. “No, I mean, right now, we have 1,000 mouths to feed.”

On the farm, there’s work to be done, season be darned.

A mild winter

Truth be told, though, this winter’s mild side has certainly made things a bit easier on local farmers. At his Rocking H Ranch just south of Stull, Wulfkuhle and his family aren’t complaining in the least that things have been, for the most part, unseasonably warm.

“It takes more feed to keep their body temperature warm, so we’ve been able to use less feed,” says Wulfkuhle, who grew up raising cattle. “In the winter we have to keep good open water for them, and it’s a struggle to keep the ice chopped and keep our waters going, and this year we haven’t had too much of a struggle. From the livestock end, this has been a real blessing for us, compared to the last couple of years.”

Vegetable farmers are also enjoying the weather, which is allowing for maintenance that is usually hard to do during the winter, and nearly impossible to do during the full-time growing seasons of spring, summer and fall.

“Although we always do maintenance and repair on the buildings, we’ve been able to actually prime and paint doors and things like that that we would never be able to do now,” says Stephanie Thomas of Spring Creek Farm near Baldwin City. “That part of it is a little different. But I think for the most part we have a certain routine we go through out there anyway, regardless of the weather.”

Jill Elmers of Moon on the Meadow says she, too, is enjoying fixing outbuildings, but niggling thoughts about the warmth do tend to worry her in ways that wouldn’t bother a livestock operation. The cold does have its purpose for those who grow from seed to harvest.

“It’s definitely making for a better frame of mind,” says Elmers, who took advantage of a recent 60-degree day to till up a field for an upcoming planting. “It has been a very strange winter, so we’ll see what that does to affect our spring. If you have a really warm winter, you tend to have more pest problems in the spring because we don’t have the real deep cold to kill off a lot of bugs, which can be detrimental. And we definitely need some more moisture.”

Preparation and rest

If this winter weren’t so strange, it wouldn’t matter a whole lot; the same checklist needs to be done each year down on the farm, regardless of the temperature. Farmers must order seeds for the season, plan planting schedules, crop rotations, prepare contracts for restaurants and grocery stores, work on promotion and stay up to date with certifications and professional organizations.

For Stu Shafer of Sandheron Farm, it’s a checklist with a clear beginning and end — Shafer is also a professor at Johnson County Community College.

“For me, because school takes up so much time, it’s during the winter break that I do a lot of work around the farm. We’ve been working on the high tunnels this winter (and) there’s work to do inside, too, looking at the records and summarizing and figuring out what we did well, and planning crop rotations and all that sort of thing. It’s, interestingly, a lot of computer work,” says Shafer, whose sales come mostly through the Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance. “I keep my planting and any kind of tillage or pest control and labor and production records on spreadsheets on the computer. I just keep running tallies as I go. ... I go back now, and because it’s in a spreadsheet, I can just do quick summary statistics and keep track of how much space it took, so I can calculate productivity per space unit so I can be more productive per space unit.”

Bob Lominska, who, like Shafer farms for Rolling Prairie, retired a few years ago from school teaching and now farms full time. Therefore, his winter is similar, but a bit different than his cohort’s. For example, he actually was very near a beach just weeks ago — visiting family in South Florida.

“Visiting family, reading books, watching movies,” he says of his winter plans. “I also try to do some promotion for Central Soyfoods (where he’s a partner), go to meetings. And I always have the goal, but don’t get a great deal done, of doing volunteer work.”

Some local farmers are even using the winter as a miniature selling season. Dan Phelps and Cole Cottin of MAD Farm are lining a table with vegetables every other Thursday at Cottin’s Farmer’s Market. Phelps said the couple had planned all year to grow and sell veggies in the winter thanks to a hoop house setup, but this winter’s mild temps have made it much easier than expected. He thinks a change in perspective during winters of any stripe can keep the local goodies coming even as farmers are putting in their seed orders for spring. A project for next winter, perhaps?

“You can grow year-round under plastic, even in the colder years. Last year was a pretty harsh winter and things don’t do much from mid-December to mid-January. They just kind of sit there, they don’t grow much. But come Feb. 1, the things that are established in the ground are just bumping once the days get a little bit longer,” Phelps says. “And storage crops have a huge amount of potential. I think that’s an under-utilized market right now, growing more than you could possibly sell during the growing season for crops like potatoes and onions, sweet potatoes, garlic, winter squash — things that will store six months into the winter. I think increasing production of those crops would really, really help.”

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