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Post by Kriss and Shannon
Circle M Market Farm
2014-03-05 11:15:45

Reflections on a Winter Well Spent

The days are stretching out at last and the hens are laying again – thanks to the same increasing sunshine which gives their eggs such a vibrant orange color. While we are still under a full blanket of snow in our little Wisconsin valley, things are shifting here on the farm. Winter, though long and late, is fading fast and spring is rapidly approaching. It’s time to start seeds inside, though we’ve hesitated to begin in a year so cold, since those seeds, once sprouted and in need of light, will require an exorbitant amount of propane heat to survive in the greenhouse. And so in these final days of waiting for just the right moment to begin the growing season, I’m enjoying the luxury of reflecting on a winter well spent.

Most folks assume that because I’m a vegetable farmer, spring is undoubtedly my favorite season. “Bet your itching to get started in those fields!” is the most common greeting I hear when I meet my neighbors in town on a February errand afternoon. Not so, I counter. For me, the sweetest time of year is the coldest time. Those three months likely would not be so sweet if I didn’t have a job that kept me working hard outside in all the weather variations of the other 9 months. Winter is when I get slow down and truly appreciate what I do.

The modern business word for this sort of break is “sabbatical.” The ancients called it a “Sabbath” and the Bible actually commands followers of the Hebrew God to observe several sorts of rhythmic breaks in their daily toil: a one-day weekly rest from work and multiple yearly week-long festivals. Seven- and fifty-year breaks from growing on the land (as well as freedom for indentured servants and a return of property lost to debt) are prescribed as well. The Spanish priest Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order in 1540, took the rhythmic rest concept even further for his followers, prescribing a daily or twice-daily “Examen” in which the brothers took a pause from work to prayerfully look back on the day’s events and blessings.

In our chronically-work-a-holic society, Sabbaths and sabbaticals seem rather archaic and even foolhardy – after all, the work is never done, especially for farmers who live where they work and always have another weed, improvement project or broken piece of equipment in their line of vision. One could argue, though, that taking a rest can make you a better worker in the end.

Certainly most farmers I know use their winter break – however long it may be – to become better farmers. Almost all of us take classes through our University Extension systems on the latest research on the bugs, diseases and weather conditions that will affect our crops in the year to come. We join together at local and regional farming conferences like those sponsored by MOSES, Wisconsin Farmers Union or Farmshed to brainstorm around common concerns, learn about new seed varieties and equipment, and attend sessions on areas of specific concern to our farms, like business software and social media networking. Many of us teach at these events as well. And by the way, these excellent opportunities are available to everyone, not just farmers! Of course, class isn’t the only place to learn. All through the growing season, I take notes on improvements I need to make, journal the problems I need to solve and stockpile the books and magazines I will read in front of the woodstove during winter. I revisit Eliot Coleman’s indispensable books every January and read my favorite seed catalogs cover-to-cover. I also use these months to scour the internet researching solutions and options that other farmers are very often willing to share.

Because it is next to impossible to leave the farm for most of the year, many farmers use winter to simply get away for a week or two and see some fresh scenery as well as the friends and family they miss during the hectic year. Some take “work-ations” to farms in warmer climates to learn techniques that might increase efficiency on their own places. I personally use winter as an extended eating vacation! For me, growing veggies is all about eating veggies and I test a ton of recipes when I have more cooking time in the off-season to help me plan the recipes I’ll share in our CSA newsletters and map out the menus for our field-to-table dinners. We throw a lot of dinner parties and reconnect with friends over those experimental dishes. I build my Pinterest boards (check out the Farmer Kriss page) and buy a lot of cookbooks. This year’s Top 5 include Jacques Pepin’s Fast Food My Way, Michael Pollan’s Cooked (not really a cookbook as much as a poem to cooking), Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy and Annet Corona’s New Ukrainian Cookbook. Out-of-print bookstore-finds-of-the-year were Anne Volokh’s Art of Russian Cuisine and Leslie Forbes hand-drawn A Taste of Provence. Friends blessed me with Sando Katz’s The Art of Fermentation, Steen and Noyes’ Whole Grain Vegan Baking and Jill Nussinow’s The Veggie Queen. So. I am loved and happy and full!

I eat out as often as I can for inspiration, and this winter I especially enjoyed meals at Merchant, The Cooper’s Tavern, Sunprint Café and Lao Laan-Xang in Madison, as well as several fantastic dishes at Bistro 101 in Mount Horeb. I regularly purchase small bits from the delis at both Willy Street Co-op and Whole Foods. This year I was blown away by the raw Butternut Squash Slaw at Willy and the Broccoli Detox Salad at WF, both of which I copied for our kitchen at the farm. When I travel, I make an effort to visit the farm-to-table restaurants. In Bethlehem, PA, this February, I had an amazing 5-course Ukrainian dinner at the Black Forest Deli and a killer brunch at Bolete, a L’Etoile-style bistro housed in an old stone stagecoach tavern. I always carry a journal in my purse to immediately jot down descriptions of dishes that wow me, and I’ve been cooking from those two for weeks. These are great strategies for CSA members to prepare for the season, too!

Overnight, we were blanketed under a fresh five inches of snow. Gorgeous. Tomorrow I start planting onions, leeks and shallots in the warmth of my dark, heated germination chamber. Today I’m pulled up close to the woodstove where two stew hens simmer fragrantly into stock. Cookbooks are spread on the carpet in front of me, seed packets spread on the table behind me, my journal and date book rest on my lap as I ponder the good and fruitful winter I’m about to leave. I am immensely thankful and humbled by the grace of a Sabbath season. I am amazed, in fact, at all the inputs I’ve been able to absorb in three months, all the food I’ve cooked and shared and eaten, all the problems I’ve made headway on, all the new ideas I’ve hatched and, most importantly, all the beauty I’ve been able to appreciate from the quiet and peace of my window seat looking out on this precious farm. In my brief “Examen” of the winter, I see evidence of growth deep under the surface and I now bend my effort to welcoming those shoots into the light of spring.