Winter on the northern Montana prairie can seem interminable to anyone who isn’t a farmer. It’s certainly not bustling with activity like it is during planting or harvest but a farmer’s work is never done. Winter is a time to reflect on the previous year as well as plan and prepare for the coming spring. And suddenly that long winter becomes much too short.
As with any business, taking the successes and failures of the previous year into account is important for growth and improvement. Farming is no different and in fact, I would say that for an organic farmer to be successful, this is crucial. My farm manager, Seth, and I have spent a great deal of time this winter reviewing each field and crop. What crops did well and why? What fields are trouble areas that may require more attention in the coming year? We take into account weather patterns and soil content. This last year we had particularly rough weather for farming, between drought and hail, our yields were not as high as they could have been. But that is the nature of farming and that is why we’re always looking for hardier field crops that can better with stand extreme weather conditions. Organic farming is about learning what worked and what didn’t the year before and finding alternatives for the coming spring, and winter is the perfect time to do that.
But winter doesn’t mean we’re just ignoring our fields either. Many of them have winter peas or wheat planted in the fall and we want to monitor things like snow cover, soil erosion, and the inevitable wildlife that like to use our winter crops as a buffet. Snow cover is particularly important for these winter crops because it not only provides moisture but protection from wind erosion as well as extreme cold. Thus far we’ve had a decent amount of snow this winter, which hopefully means that we won’t have another drought this year.
Winter is also a time to make repairs. The trucks, tractors and combines need to be ready for spring. This year our big project is the combine we had to haul back to the farm this fall. But repairs aren’t limited to machinery, we also want to make sure our buildings and grain bins are in good repair.
Between the repairs and other preparations, we’re making plans for the fast-approaching spring. With a nine-year crop rotation in place, we generally have a good idea of what crops will be growing where but as I mentioned before, being aware of the land and how it has reacted in previous years has a lot of sway in where and what we plant going forward. Being able to adapt is very important. So once we decide what crops should be planted in what fields, we plan out time frames of when each crop will need to be in the ground for the optimum growing period and we order the seed if we didn’t grow enough the previous year.
I think one of the best parts about farming is that every year you truly start anew. Despite hail and drought last year, I am hopeful for a good year in 2016.