When is Enough Enough?
By John Lee
We are getting toward the end of the season and the full tilt boogie juggernaut of summer, fall and the holidays is beginning to take its toll on our bodies. This summer—and particularly the fall—have been cool and wet with weekly heavy rains that not only break down the plants but our spirits, too. And what is there to look forward to as we consider the snowy, cold weather to come? Well, there are winter markets; there is the possibility of a little time off; there is a lot of deferred maintenance, spring prep and planning for next summer’s CSA. So, before winter even gets out of the starting blocks, spring and summer will again be nipping at our heels and reminding us that we can never be adequately prepared for what we fervently hope might just be around the corner.
It used to be that after the Christmas holiday, there were a few winter chores aside from snowplowing that needed attention. But with a growing business, increasing costs, staff and other expectations, the winter is ever abbreviating and there is a constantly increasing demand on my time. Tax preparation, budgets, pipe dreams, permits, up-keep/maintenance all keep taking more and more time just when one would like to have more time to do less. Prospective and established farmer’s markets will be recruiting; then there is the new ‘winter market’ rage which is arguably attractive.
This strikes me as a parallel problem with what I see happening in my fields. With rising demand and increasing market opportunities, there is increasing pressure to produce and the need to double and triple crops, most of our fields are beginning to show a little wear and tear in the soil profile and on the tillage equipment. This is a most unwelcome result of what might be called farm fame. Chefs and supermarkets all see that farmers are game-changers in their rush to one-up each other and we are too often too happy to accommodate their ordinarily welcome demand for the fruits of our labor. The crush to be ‘local’ is beginning to put a significant burden on the ‘local’ resource of first resort.
To make matters even more interesting, our growing season is getting longer with earlier springs and later first hard frost dates. Arguably this makes winter markets more realistic as the late season soils stay a bit warmer. The slightly longer fall season also creates a better synchrony with local schools and the feel-good prospects of providing wholesome food to senior sites is also appealing. (I mean, who wouldn’t want to provide fresh produce to the kids or the grandparents who have little access to good nutritional resources?)
Finding a balance between soil health and mental health and the right balance of crops and markets is always on my mind at this time of year. I have to be careful to value each option honestly and judiciously, remembering that all variables in the equation are very important and to leave room for the unknowable (but predictable) variable which will inevitably throw a monkey wrench into next year’s plan as it unfolds. No fun is, shall we say, no fun and “too much work makes Johnny a dull boy” (as my mother used to say.) So having a great partner at home and at work to share the burdens, buffer the inevitable conflicts and create clairvoyance at just the right moments makes the busy-ness of being a farmer ultimately very rewarding even in an off year!
John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston's last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children's program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.