This is a busy time on the farm. We are already preparing for the spring season even though we seem to be in the depths of winter. The fields still have a few overwintered brassicas that we are getting a harvest off of, but one of our hoop houses has already transitioned to spring crops with the early alliums and some salad mix already popping up. Meanwhile our greenhouse has already started to fill up with trays of spring seed germinating and sprouting ahead of outdoor spring planting. Last week we seeded trays with a variety of brassicas including broccoli, kale, and cabbage.
There are several other winter projects coming to fruition right now as well. These would include new (to us anyway) gravel around the greenhouse, storage shed, and wash stations, a new and improved mobile chicken coop that is nearly finished, and a hugelkultur bed that is almost ready to transition from cover crops to cash crops.
In years past this time might have been a quiet time of rest and reflection for the piedmont farmer, but increased competition at markets has changed all that. The increasing number of small vegetable farmers has created an arms race of season extension. With the first and last crop to market commanding a premium price it seems that nearly every successful small farmer is continuously pushing the envelope to get his crop in earlier than the farmer down the road. Likewise we’re all trying to extend our harvest later and later such that our fall crops are being harvested into the spring.
There are a couple of factors facilitating this escalating competition. Seed companies are developing new varieties that are more heat and cold tolerant all the time, and this increasing diversity is one factor that helps us stay competitive. Another is the increasing availability of season extension and new and innovative techniques that allow crops to survive extremes of temperature that would’ve ended their production a decade ago. Yet even with these new varieties and practices farmers today are facing more and more challenges from unpredictable weather, high fuel costs, and drought or extreme rain events. As the effects of global climate change continue to manifest in new and different ways the farmers that succeed will be those that stay curious, adapt quickly, know their markets really well, and invest in flexible infrastructure that help to buffer their crop against the outlier weather that is becoming the norm. So the next time you pick up a bunch of kale in January or a clamshell full of cherry tomatoes in April take a moment to reflect on the skill, expertise, and experience that made that minor miracle possible.