For our second WNC CRAFT Farmer Round Table this year we took time to compare notes on our approaches and strategies for Navigating Winter Changes on the Farm. Winter in Western NC (WNC) and across the Southern Appalachians is a tricky time of year. While the Southeast is thought to have mild winters it is a different story in our mountain region. Our landscape is traversed with micro-climates that can be as different as day and night in as little as a few miles. Winters are often characterized by big temperature swings that bring their own challenges, especially if you are overwintering vegetables or raise livestock. Winter is not simply “vacation time” for farmers in our region. However, it does bring on a shift in focus and activities for many farmers as we explored during the Farmer Round Table. Here are some notes from the discussion of how WNC CRAFT farmers think and act strategically during this marginal and challenging time of year.

Navigating Winter Changes on the Farm:

What do you consider your winter season?

  • The general timeframe runs from End of November (Thanksgiving) – end of February.

To market or not to market?

  • Winter is characterized by reduced production, but all of the farmers are actively tending, starting, or caring for overwintered plants, greenhouse transplants and/or livestock. So daily chores shift but don’t end by any means.
  • Many (but not all!) continue to attend at least one farmer’s markets and sell farm products throughout the winter.
  • They are selling overwintered products that can recover in the colder temperatures, or storage crops put up at the end of summer & fall. Meat products are especially helpful for some influx of cash flow during this time.
  • One farmer was able to keep her laying hens up to a 50% production rate over the winter with a Hen Light. It’s a solar-powered light that creates an early sunrise and natural sunset. She puts it on in early December after the hens have molted and regrown their feathers.
  • It is more expensive to raise produce in the winter, and prices ought to reflect that. Each farm had a slightly different way of approaching winter pricing. One farm will keep prices the same, but the bunches are smaller.
  • Another increases the price by $.50/lb for winter crops. He said that anything that he has wash, dig, or comes out of the heated greenhouse has a special winter price.
  • Folks have also found that it’s easier to sell “less pretty” produce in the winter, people are excited about any fresh product, even bok choy!

Finding Balance – Working but not working too hard:

  • Several farmers mentioned the fact that while you are harvesting, and caring for plants and livestock they’re also doing the work with fewer people, and have shorter days.
  • Also, they can only sell so much at one time during the year, so keeping some level of cash flow through the winter season helps.
  • But, quality of life comes into play, too! Winters are so changeable. It’s not as cold as Maine, but we do get week-long freezes. And, harvesting, washing, and sorting through stored items can get difficult and tedious.
  • Many farmers are able to fit in at least a week of vacation this time of year, and are cognizant of trying not to work too hard for a smaller income.

Labor Considerations

  • Apprentices, seasonal employees are often gone by this time. Some farms are able to keep a couple of folks on through the winter but work crews are significantly reduced.
  • Those farms that do have winter labor help had to build toward having paying work to keep someone around and provide winterized housing on the farm. It’s easy to find work but that work needs to be paying work!
  • But, those farms have found that it helps to keep employees year round because they tend to come back for multiple years. Increasing their ability to keep quality employees on the farm year to year.

Planning & Prep Time:

  • Shorter daylight hours and less farming activity do leave a bit more time for working on projects that you can’t get to during the height of the growing season.
  • Infrastructure can get some needed TLC, equipment can be tuned up & fixed. This is a great way to put a winter crew to work, too.
  • But, some farmers find it difficult to make too many infrastructure upgrades because much of the farm infrastructure is still in use. Barns may be housing animals and its busy season in the greenhouses. The warmer weather tends to be the best time to change greenhouse plastic, redo wiggle wire, fix end walls, etc.
  • Oftentimes, farmers are keeping an active eye on the weather and ready to take opportunities as they come. If the ground is dry enough, they may consider preparing a bed to get a jump start when warmer weather sets in.
  • December and January are when most of the planning for the coming growing season takes place.
  • It’s time to review the previous year, get in your seed orders, start recruiting new apprentices/employees and get your crop & financial planning done.

Thanks so much for William Lyons from Bluebird Farm for facilitating this great Farmer Round Table discussion!

WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers, and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information and to join, click here.

Cameron Farlow

Author: Cameron Farlow

Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a beekeeper, dancer, baker and avid adventurer.