By Brennan Henning, Community Fellow
“... So what are you EVEN doing this time of year?”
“You must just be twiddling your thumbs until it starts to get warm, right?”
“You’re growing vegetables in tunnels? Like the ones groundhogs dig?”
As I enter a new community of people and begin making new friends, I frequently get questions like this. These questions are all completely understandable and natural but also provide a clear-cut reminder of how disconnected the majority of people (including me before coming to AMI!) are from the food system. While February would seem like a dull time on a farm, I can assure you that it is quite the opposite.
We may not be out sweating in the fields or harvesting and hauling bins and bins of vegetables (like we will be in a short few months) but hard work is certainly not absent during this time of year. In my mind, the winter months on a farm can be equated to weekends in everyday life. Throughout the week you’re often too busy to deep clean your house or tackle those minor (or maybe sizeable) projects you have running around your mind. But when the weekend comes around, you finally have some free time to check off those tasks that have been bugging you for quite some time. In the same way, winter is the season when we have the extra time to knock out those substantial projects that have been bugging us all year. Like digging trenches to install a French drain. Or hauling hundreds of wheelbarrows full of mulch to cover all the pathways on the farm. Or filling bags with sand to weigh down tarps covering the fields. Yes, it is as fun as it sounds.
What has been most apparent for me this winter is that it’s a fresh start for learning. When we came up to the mountain last year, everything was a blur. I’d never worked any amount of meaningful time on a farm so the quantity of new information that I had to learn was immense. We had to learn the basics and how the farm functioned as a system, in turn the smaller details and time for observation faded into the background. Since coming back in January equipped with everything I learned on the mountain, I have so much more mental capacity to focus on the more minute details that are just as important in my journey as a farmer. For example, as my Community Action Year project at Augusta Health, I am working to establish a perennial culinary herb section on the farm. As I gather disjointed perennial herbs from around the farm to re-pot, to me, they just look dead. They’ve allowed their exposed pieces to die off and instead store their energy in their roots to stay alive through the chill. What looks no different than some sticks will flourish with life once the weather warms up (or so I’m told). Thinking back to my time up on the mountain, I certainly paid no attention to these sad dreary looking plants. But then, all of the sudden, we magically had beautiful green bushes full of life and delicious smells. The end of winter is the perfect time to be watching these dry, brown sticks make that shift to the luscious fragrant herbs I am looking forward to.
It’s exciting to me to be back at the beginning of the cycle with all of the knowledge I gained up on the Allegheny Farm in my back pocket. I think that’s some of the beauty of farming for me – it’s so cyclical which allows you to devote your focus in different ways each year, becoming more and more familiar with different vegetables, or processes, or herbs. Each year brings a fresh start to learn, make mistakes, and experience exceptional successes. At the same time, each year is so connected. In regenerative farming we’re playing the long game, each year building on top of one another as we work towards a more sustainable food system, better soil, and healthier plants. It’s not just about what we learn in one season, but compounding that knowledge over years and years on the same piece of soil.
Winter is also a time of expectancy. We sow thousands of seeds into trays, pop the trays into the germination chamber, pull them out and wait. As someone predisposed to optimism, walking into the greenhouse these days fills me with such immense joy. The dazzling, sunny warmth welcomes you in as you open the door and the bright green sprouts offer a stark contrast to the brown and gray monotony outside. While the growth happens slowly, the greenhouse feels energetic and teeming with life, like a little pocket of spring. Looking at the AMI Farm at Augusta Health, it does not look too terribly different than the rest of the natural world, full of dreary colors and a biting wind. Meanwhile we are hard at work inside the high tunnel, caterpillar tunnels, and the greenhouse, waiting for spring to come to transform the fields into areas vibrant and alive, tomato vines climbing up to the ceiling of the high tunnel, bushy snap peas snaking up and down their trellising, and heads of crisp lettuce canvasing sections of soil. But for now, we wait.
“You think winter will never end, and then, when you don't expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and a different light” -Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter