Winter looming

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With the FSA’s monster loan application submitted for review, and the FarmRaiser party behind us, all focus has turned toward preparing for the winter looming ahead of us. The unseasonable warmth we’ve experienced so far this fall can be deceiving, but make no mistake─winter will come to Maine. When it does I intend to be ready.

Over the years I have adopted a series of personal deadlines for winter preparations. By the end of October I like to have my car winterized, housing tightened down, heating organized, livestock in their winter accommodations, and the majority of farm equipment put away. By Thanksgiving I want to have candy boards on the beehives, and any remaining farm or homestead equipment stowed away safe from snow and ice.

The Apiary

preparing bees for winter

Bees do not hibernate through the winter.

The unseasonably warm weather we are experiencing here in the northeast this fall is not great for bees. Bees do not hibernate through the winter. They cluster tightly together around their Queen, shivering their bodies and wings to generate heat as they revolve about her. They are awake and active inside their hives, but are not working nearly so hard as they do in the summer. As a result they consume much less food when it is cold. When the weather remains warm into the fall and winter the bees stay more active, eating up honey stores that would otherwise remain untouched til mid-winter.

In mid-September the fall honey harvest was taken off the hives. The bees continued to bring in nectar and pollen for another 2-3 weeks, finishing uncapped honey that will feed their colonies through the winter. Hives that were light on stores were given additional frames of honey, and fed 2:1 sugar-syrup using a top-feeder on the inner cover.

Mouse-guards and entrance reducers were installed early in September before the field mice began looking for winter dens. For a late-October mite treatment of oxalic acid (derived from the stinging nettle plant) I’ve scheduled to borrow a vaporizer from a beekeeping buddy. Then in November we will make candy-boards, and any white hives in my apiary will be wrapped with tar-paper before my Thanksgiving deadline. The darker painted hives and the unpainted wooden hives I no longer wrap in the winter.

Even with the unseasonable fall, it’s getting to be the time of year that beekeepers dread most. The colder months are hardest on bee colonies, and too cold to allow the beekeeper to work with them. Already we are shutting hives down. I am anxiously reviewing the season─did I do enough? How many of the colonies will survive? What could I have done better? Of course we won’t know til we’re on the other side of winter.

Garden

The garden is in a state of transition. The summer crops are mostly finished in our small homestead garden. We’ve harvested and eaten zucchini and yellow summer squash til it was coming out our ears. We had a harvest of green beans, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, a number of pie pumpkins, and a respectable crate-full of winter squashes of varying sizes.

amaranth

Paul grew Amaranth this year, which was new to me. The leafy greens reminded me of spinach and chard, and it grows well all summer─no bolting. I quickly fell for Amaranth!

It was interesting to see which crops thrived in the sandy soil, compared to those who only tolerated it and those that did altogether poorly. The carnival squash did exceptionally well in our dry, sandy soil and I got a half dozen of this variety grown to an impressive cantaloupe-size. While the butternut and acorn squashes produced a number of fruits, but all undersized for these varieties. My favorite winter sweet kubocha squash fared the worst, only producing 2 “miniature” squashes, one not bigger than a baseball.

This is where working part-time at Johnny’s Selected Seeds can sometimes yield unexpected blessings. I had the opportunity earlier this week to accompany a colleague to the Johnny’s research farm. Not once, but twice in 2 days!─I went to harvest produce for our office-bound co-workers. We harvested bushels of paste tomatoes and beautiful bright colored sweet peppers on Monday afternoon. Then on Tuesday afternoon we went to harvest winter squashes. Thanks to Johnny’s I scored an extra bushel of paste tomatoes, and 3 bushels of winter squashes.

Determined to continue to grow food into the fall and winter, I’ve sown 2 raised beds with cold-hardy crops sown using Johnny’s Fall Harvest Planting Calculator. Timing the sowing of crops for fall and winter harvest is particularly crucial, since they need to reach at least 75% maturity before the start of the Persephone Period (the point at which the day-length drops below 10 hours in duration).

In one bed I have beets, kale, bok choi, hakeuri turnips, radishes, and a couple of heads of lettuce. In the other I have lettuce mix, lots of tatsoi, radishes, spinach, and mizuna.

I was caught a little by surprise by our first frost. It was only thanks to a colleague’s warning on facebook that Paul and I were able to scurry out to the garden in the waning daylight to cover the beds I wanted to save. By the light of a headlamp we snatched the remainding tomatoes and peppers off the plants. Predictably the cucurbits, the nightshades and many other tender plants were wiped out first thing.

Since then, I’ve been preparing those 2 fall and winter-harvest beds for the next inevitable frost. Many commercial growers use the metal EMT-conduit and a simple bender to make hoops that span the bed and covered with agribon to create “low-tunnels”. Since I am no longer growing for market, but to feed myself and my family, I decided it wasn’t worth the expense of time and money to buy the EMT and borrow a bender to make a dozen hoops. I opted to use a tried-and-true method and went for 1/2-inch CPVC to make my hoops. The agribon I already have on hand; I just need to cut it to length so that I can quickly get it in place in the event of a frost advisory.

Note: This is a method I’ve used for years as a woman farmer. It’s easy enough that it requires little tool-skill, and durable enough that I’m still using the same equipment 5 years later. Check out “How to Build a Mini Hoop-House” for more details!

The Farm

At this point, the “farm” component of Runamuk is comprised of the laying flock of chickens that free-range the property I am currently leasing. Last fall we dramatically reduced the flock numbers in the face of the Great Farm Move. We went from about 90 birds to 40, and then lost another 9 birds during the winter to a series of hungry mink. I bought 10 layers in the spring, and then we received another 12 from the Magoons at Willow Lane Farm.

Since all of the birds are now 2-years or older and are significantly reduced in their production capacity, I’ve decided to send the majority of them to “Freezer Camp” rather than feed them and attempt to protect all of them from predators during the winter.

Older hens tend to be tougher meat, so I don’t sell them to customers, but cooked as stewing birds they feed my family just fine. We will keep 6 to 10 of the youngest, and the rest Paul and I will process sometime in the next couple of weeks. Used sparingly, this meat should feed us through the next year.

Early next spring I intend to purchase 50 started pullets to replenish the flock to have eggs available at the farmers’ market. We’ve decided to transition to non-GMO feed, using scratch grains available at Maine Grains in Skowhegan; it’s exciting for me to raise my birds on grain grown right here in the state.

Homestead

We’re facing another winter in this unfinished trailer. Even if the FSA will finance the Swinging Bridge Farm, the closing date won’t be scheduled til February or March due to the backlog that government office is facing. That means the Final Chapter of the Great Farm Move likely won’t happen til after mud season next year. I’m determined to make the best of things this winter.

changing of the cars

The “new” Forester on the left, and my retired Outback on the right.

Transportation: Experience has taught me the value of properly preparing my vehicle for the winter. Here in Maine we’ve been known to get snow in early November, and there’s nothing worse than driving in slick conditions in an unprepared vehicle. I like to have any major work to my vehicle taken care of well in advance of October, and good tires on the thing no later than Halloween.

Recently my trusted mechanic, Luke Vigneault (of Luke’s After Hours Auto Repair in Madison), pointed out the holes rusted through the frame of the Subaru Outback I’ve been driving for the last 2 and a half years. He had the old girl up on the lift and pointed a flashlight at the rocker panels, indicating how we could see clear through to the opposite side of his garage. He went on to show how I’d worn out the shocks and struts on every tire (that explains why she bounced all over the road so much lol!). So it was with some sadness that we have replaced the Outback with a Subaru Forester in better condition. All that’s left to do is to take my good snow tires off the Outback and put them on the Forester.

Heating & Housing: I like to have my winter heating squared away and the housing tightened up by the end of October too. Paul has been busy cutting firewood from the surrounding forest, and the woodstove has been cleaned and prepared for use. We bought a pop-up garage to store firewood in to keep it dry, and my 2 boys are collecting sticks and kindling into livestock feed bags to add to the stockpile.

There’s not much to be done for the old trailer we’re currently homesteading in; with plans to eventually move on, we’re reluctant to invest too much money in the old place. We’ll put plastic over the single-pane windows to retain more heat and stop drafts. Aside from that I am grateful for the roof that keeps us dry and the woodstove that will keep us warm this winter.

Preserving the Harvest: The majority of my homestead preparations revolve around food preservation. In such tight quarters I’ve had to get creative with storage─especially food storage. Potatoes, and onions, are stashed in cardboard boxes in the corners of the back bedroom where the kids sleep. This is the furthest space from the woodstove and we were able to keep vegetables this way into the depths of winter last year. The winter squashes are stowed under their dresser on the floor, and I’m pleased to have so many that they are spilling out into the middle of the floor there.

I am exceedingly grateful to have inherited a chest freezer from Jim Murphy, where I’ve found I can store a year’s supply of meat and vegetables. Tomatoes are in the process of becoming sauce, sealed into ziplock bags and put into the freezer. Green beans and most other vegetables have been blanched and stored in the freezer. Raspberries and blackberries we foraged from the surrounding woods are packaged and frozen. I sliced up peaches we scored a deal on through a colleague at Johnny’s who has a connection, froze them on a cookie sheet, then packaged and stored them in the freezer. Apples are next on the list, and once processed the chickens should fill the remaining space in the freezer. It’s a really good feeling to have so much food stored away for the winter.

Conclusion

Likely we won’t know the results of my efforts to secure the Swinging Bridge Farm until sometime around the New Year. Regardless of the outcome, I have a farm and family to take care of and winter looming on the horizon. I cannot sit idly by waiting for the verdict. The whole thing is out of my hands now. I’ve committed myself to the present, to winter preparations and to the upcoming holiday season, which is always good distraction. Soon there will be snow on the ground, and cozied up inside before the crackling woodstove there will be plenty of time to ponder the possibilities that next year might bring.

Thanks for following along with one woman’s journey as a beginning farmer! Stay tuned for more updates coming soon regarding my mission to create a pollinator conservation farm here in central Maine!

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