Winter Reflections from Katchkie Farm
By Jon Ronsani
If I could give a picture of a farming season it would be akin to a voyage out to sea. Once we set sail, there is no turning back. To quote the old English poem “The Seafarer”
True is the tale that I tell of my travels
Sing of my seafaring sorrow and woes
Hunger and hardship’s heaviest burdens
Tempest and terrible toil of the deep
Daily I’ve born on the deck of my boat”
Then one day “land ho.”
Winter is here and we get to dock our metaphorical boat. The rains, droughts, and long days are but distant memories. At that point, they seem more like wise teachers than “hardship’s heaviest burdens.”
The main work on the farm during the shorter days is spent creating the plan for the upcoming growing season which is no small task. The crop plan and outcome of the previous season is reviewed. Changes and improvements are noted and will be put into the upcoming growing season. Then, the big question of what the farm is growing and for whom has to be answered. The answer to this question drives the whole shape of the farm for the upcoming year. If we were growing tomatoes for canning and U pick pumpkins, the plan would be very different than it would if we were growing 50 different crops harvested over 22 weeks for a CSA. In general, the more diverse the range of crops, the more nuanced the management must be. Answering all questions from the number of plants needed, projected yield, crop revenue, needed yield, seeding dates, nutrient needs, field preparation, harvest dates, crop rotations, distribution and labor needs for each crop is what creates the plan. The aforementioned plan is essential, but this is one part of the farmer’s work in winter.
I tend to think that some of the most important work of the farmer happens in the longer nights of winter. This is the time that the farmer can rekindle their love with farming and the farm. For me this happens in many ways. One is while spending more time with the family. Children have such a unique way of doing any task. This can be eating dinner, drawing, painting, playing board games, and building, among other things. They are not so concerned with the “rules” as they are with fully immersing themselves in what they are doing. This really reminds me not to connect with solely the plan of the farm, but to also connect with why I made the plan. Children also have such an innate sense of wonder that is very inspiring as well.
Farming is full of natural processes that I could chemically explain, but if you asked me with that knowledge to make a leaf of lettuce, I would be completely at a loss. I would still need a lettuce seed to make that leaf of lettuce. Reconnecting with that sense of wonder is so essential for me. Experiencing that sense in my children also inspires me to look at the farm in a different way during the day.
While I walk around the fields in the winter, I cannot help but wonder what is slumbering under the soils and what shape the fields will take as they start to grow our food. Looking at the snow-covered fields is really like looking at a blank canvas. Crop by crop, the fields will become full again creating a new composition unique to each season. Those long winter nights are also the perfect time to study agriculture. I had recently come across what the farmers of the ancient Persian empire studied. They studied mathematics, art, music, astronomy, and medicine. I have to admit that my depth of knowledge does not go that far, but delving into some of the great works of literature or study of the stars is something that can only be savored in the winter nights.
After about two months of this kind of this nourishment, it is time to set sail for another voyage and start the season again. I do have to say that with each voyage the breadth of vision is a little wider and the ups and downs of the farming season are easier to navigate.
2022 KATCHKIE FARM IN REVIEW
By Jon Ronsani
Katchkie Farm is Great Performances’ NOFA-certified organic farm located in upstate New York. A source of ingredients and inspiration, it is managed by Jon Ronsani who lives on the farm with his wife Jen and three children. Each year, Katchkie Farm offers a CSA available at select Great Performances locations for community pickup and at participating workplaces. To learn more and find out how to participate in the CSA, visit our farm site by clicking the link here.
The farm fields are covered in snow as the earth beneath lies in its deep winter slumber. Walking across them, following deer tracks with my children, one would never know the visible vitality that the earth held many months ago. This seems like a different farm from the ever fruitful one that bore so much in the summer sun. Now the farmers breathe deeply in the frosty air and take a moment to enjoy the sparkling of the snow and their children’s laughter.
Wintertime is upon the farm, and it is the time the course is mapped for the next season. However, before the course onward is charted, the course already traversed must be weighed in upon. The metrics are garnered through all of our weekly harvest records and compared to those that were anticipated before planting. Some crops were on target, some were below, and others exceeded expectations. One of those crops that did not exceed expectation was also one my favorite stories of the growing season. This year was the first time we have attempted to grow popcorn during my tenure on the farm. The first attempt at growing any crop is usually more of a learning experience than anything else. This was no exception. The variety “Dakota Black” was chosen for its superior eating quality as well as its open pollinated nature, which would allow us to save seed if it was a good fit for the farm. Much care was taken into preparing the soil for planting and tending the crop to reach its full potential. My two sons even got involved in pulling weeds under the tree like canopy that the leaves developed by mid-summer. Once we got close to harvest time, every critter within walking distance decided to make a visit to the farm. Foxes would stop by and pull whole ears off the stalks and take them back to their den for their winter store of food. Grey squirrels and red squirrels were dragging ears back to their trees to shell and store the kernels away safe and sound. Crows would stop by to perch on the corn stalks and peck kernel after kernel off of the ears. All in all, we harvested an armful or two of ears, but the fact that so much diversity abounds on the farm is another way for us to tell we are not producing our crops at the expense of nature.
Our two most outstanding crops this year were our field tomatoes and sweet potatoes. The prior year brought endless summer rains that hampered the development of these crops substantially, but with all the heat and irrigation available this year, we had bumper crops. There were days in August that were solely dedicated picking tomatoes. Crate after crate would be filled in the warm summer sun, staining our hands and shirts greenish black from the sap of the plants. This was everything that was hoped for and even more. The sweet potato crop shared equal success. Little by little the plants grew and made a vibrant green carpet of leaves catching all of the warmth of summer, bringing it down into the earth to produce the vibrantly colored roots. Crate after crate was filled with them and stored, until our cooler could hold no more sweet potatoes.
The course for the 2023 growing season is slowly coming together. Finding a balance between what is wanted, what grows well, what is profitable, and what will contribute to the health of the farm is the puzzle that must be put together every year. Finding a hibiscus that will flower in Upstate NY, planting more chicory, cauliflower, broccoli, and herbs would be wonderful pieces to add. 2023 will also bring my wife Jen into the fields and greenhouses to add a flower element to the farm. With all of the potential, I look forward to embarking on the journey ahead.