We spend our winters on the farm preparing for the next growing season. We prune trees, fix equipment and order seeds, plants and material to be as prepared as we can be, but ultimately it is Mother Nature that determines when “Spring” starts on the farm. So far, this season (as measured by the trees breaking dormancy and starting to grow) is about three to four weeks early.
It is probably not news to anyone that it has been an unusual winter and spring (it is April 4th and SNOWING!! as I write this.) It was a pretty mild winter, but it was punctuated with some extremely cold nights (remember Valentine’s day weekend?) If you can wear flip-flops and snow boots in the same week, you must be in Connecticut.
What most people aren’t as aware of, is how the weather we have been experiencing can affect our perennial crops for the rest of the season. For instance, the fruit buds that we are counting on to flower and set fruit this for this year’s crop were actually formed last year. The weather conditions and crop load last year determined how many and how strong the fruit buds are for this year. The fruit buds then need to survive the winter and spring cold and frost in order to bloom and set the young fruitlets that will become this year’s crop.
We get one shot. If something happens to damage the fruit buds during the winter and spring we are done for the year. The trees don’t form new buds to replace the ones we lose now.
Needless to say, this can lead to some sleepless nights for us as we sweat out these cold nights. In a year like this, when the trees start to emerge from their winter sleep in March, we have a few additional weeks to worry about until the threat of frost affecting the tender buds and blossoms passes.
Those of us who make our living in agriculture are careful to follow Benjamin Franklin’s advice to not count our chickens before they are hatched. There is a lot that can happen between now and harvest time. Understanding all the obstacles to growing that crisp apple or a sweet, juicy peach makes us appreciate them all the more.
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys
Don’t let ’em pick guitars and drive them old trucks
Make ’em be doctors and lawyers and such
(Ed Bruce, 1975)
When I was growing up if you asked an elementary school-aged kid what they wanted to be when they grew up, Cowboy was pretty high on the list, at least for boys. Farmer, Doctor or Lawyer? Not so much.
I grew up on a farm so I was exposed to it every day. We rode along with our dads when they checked the fields and at a fairly early age would drive the tractors and trucks putting out cabbage crates or apple boxes ahead of the picking crew or picking up bales of hay or boxes of harvested fruit. As a teenager I didn’t love working but, as my dad explained to me at the time. “You don’t have to work on the farm, but you have to work somewhere.” Given the alternatives, the farm wasn’t so bad and by the time I went to college I had decided that coming back to the family farm was what I wanted to do with my life.
“So where will the next generation of farmers come from?” is a question I find myself asking myself more and more as I approach my 60th birthday. Times are different and even the next generation of Bishop family members didn’t have quite the same exposure to the farm side of the business that my generation did.
I think farming gets a bad rap because a lot of the “entry level” jobs are not glamorous and involve being outdoors in all kinds of weather, but once you get past that, it can be a pretty good career choice. Farmers all over the country are looking for that next generation of farm managers, so there is pretty good upward mobility too. (I am talking about production agriculture. Farms with sustainable business models and the scale of operation to be successful.)
So… Mamas, maybe the time is right to let your babies grow up to be farmers.
“So, what do you do in the winter?” is a question I often get asked. Quite a lot, actually. Winter is the time when we prep and repair equipment for the coming spring. We still have apples and pears in the cold storage to pack and sell. We also try to save a few “inside” jobs for when it is actually raining or snowing, but mostly we are pruning our apple, pear and peach trees. As I mentioned in my last posting, we have 17,000 trees that must be pruned before April, so anytime it isn’t snowing or raining, we are outside pruning.
I have also had folks ask me why we prune if the trees aren’t very big yet. We actually start pruning or training the tree as soon as we plant it. It is important to get the tree started off right and the first several years in the life of a fruit tree is the time we build the framework or structure of the tree. Once the structure of the tree is established, the pruning process is mostly thinning, renewing and cutting back branches to maintain the tree. Over the years I have had friends, customers and neighbors with fruit trees who call several years after they have planted the tree in their yard and they figure it is time to think about pruning it. Usually in these cases the trees are too far gone to ever have a chance of establishing a proper structure.
There are lots of resources on the internet. Here is an example of one that covers the basics.
There are articles and even YouTube videos on the subject.
Pruning and training fruit trees are equal parts science and art (Some aspects of farming require equal parts science, art and luck.) Every tree is a little different, but once you understand enough about what the goals are, you can “see” the cuts you need to make. You will be pruning for the current crop, as well as leaving some branches that will be the renewal wood to take the place of the current framework and fruiting wood in the tree.
One of the things I love about farming is that you have a very tangible measure of what you have accomplished. At the end of a day, you can look back down a row or across a field and see what you have accomplished. There is beauty in a well-pruned tree and you can see you made a difference and imagine how that tree will look in the spring with blossoms or in fall, full of fruit.
Beginning a new year is a good time to make resolutions and set goals.
In farming we begin each new year with the hope that mother nature will be kind to us in the coming year and resolve to make positive changes, always striving to learn from, grow and improve from our past successes and failures. So many of the factors necessary for a successful year are beyond our control so we set about taking care of what we can to make sure we are ready when the time comes. Most of our time the next few months on the farm will be spent pruning our 17,000 fruit trees, planning our vegetable plantings for the coming year and preparing equipment.
In farming, no matter how bad or good the past year was, the new year is a new beginning and filled with hope. Farmers are optimists. Why else would we will invest so much time and energy planting and caring for crops knowing we could lose them in an instant to a freeze or hail storm, etc… A hurricane or tropical storm can wipe out a whole season’s work. There aren’t many farmers who are recreational gamblers. We get all the excitement we can stand at the “office”.
I would like to wish everyone a happy and healthy new year and success with your New Year resolutions. We will endeavor to do our best to at least help with the healthy part by providing fresh, nutritious, locally-grown food for you and yours.