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Winter work: In the fields with Growing Washington

Feb 1st, 2016 | Category: Community

by Kristi Roberts

As the summer months wane and give way to the winter season, there’s a distinctive shift on the farm. Where, just a few short months ago the fields and packing sheds at Growing Washington’s headquarters were bustling with dozens of workers and tons of food, a small 7-person crew now coalesce to keep the farm going. Our peak season, lasting a dynamic and restless six full months, leaves us with another half year of preparation and reframing. While our head honcho and general farm chief, Clayton Burrows, begins to arrange another year’s worth of planting and planning, our tiny close-knit crew keeps up with the harvesting and cultivating.

Winter work with Edén Lopez, Líz Lopez, Simon Davis-Cohen, Emiliano Garcia, Sonia Lopez, and Kristi Roberts. PHOTO BY CLAYTON BURROWS

Winter work with Edén Lopez, Líz Lopez, Simon Davis-Cohen, Emiliano Garcia, Sonia Lopez, and Kristi Roberts. PHOTO BY CLAYTON BURROWS

In an industry that is nearly dependent on sunlight, the winter months enable us to take advantage of more time at home and with our families. But the cold season doesn’t represent a full stop for the farm, only a slower pace. This fortune of winter is not missed on the few harvest days of the week, where we start leisurely around 9 a.m., a full 2-3 hours later than in the summer. Líz, Sonia, Gonzalo and I have been working the home-farm fields, sloshing through muddy rows in search of organic gold. We’ve held impressive yields of greens for the month of January; mizuna, tat soi and small amounts of arugula have held out longer than expected.  The lack of a sustained freeze has kept our kale plants in near perfect conditions, especially our Lacinato, Red Russian, and Green Winterbor varieties. And we’re just astounding both ourselves and our customers with golden and chioggia beets with their greens intact. Small amounts of Bright Lights Swiss Chard is even holding on and finding its way in our salad mixes. This selection, coupled with eight varieties of storage potatoes, a host of dried bean varieties, an assortment of farm-made jams and vinegars, and whole, frozen organic pastured chickens have kept our market stands looking better than ever.

Winter kale. PHOTO BY KRISTI ROBERTS

Winter kale. PHOTO BY KRISTI ROBERTS

Our goals this time of year from the home-farm is 50 pounds of salad mix, 50 pounds of braising mix, 120 bunches of chioggia beets, 80 pounds of rutabagas, 80 pounds of sunchokes, and as many bunches of green and lacinato kale that can be managed. Clayton and Zach lead the weekly harvest effort for our fields in Skagit, trucking back a big haul of muddy leeks, lacinato kale, Brussels sprouts, and red ace beets to be washed and processed at our home-farm in Everson. The fertile, yet soggy soil in Fir Island lands more challenges than in Whatcom in winter, but the harvest of leeks and kale make working in the ankle-deep mud and muck worth the work.

Winter carrots. PHOTO BY KRISTI ROBERTS

Winter carrots. PHOTO BY KRISTI ROBERTS

Four year-round Seattle winter farmers markets and a once a month market in Bellingham keeps our gears turning, but there are no shortage of challenges when it comes to winter farming. By timing our harvests around the erratic winter weather we’re often able to avoid harvesting in the rain or in freezing temperatures. We plunder the sometimes desolate fields for whatever root vegetables or leafy greens to sell, rejoicing when crops resemble their fresh summer appearance. The joys of finding a bed of unravaged kale plants or a patch of perfect beets render feelings of pride and celebration. While harvesting, our thoughts then lead to the upcoming weekend sales predictions. Our main concerns revolve around weather and football. Will it rain during the market? Is there a Seahawks game? The combination of the two can devastate sales, but a sunny day without football assures us we’ll sell out.

Although the temperate northwest climate is typically kind to our winter crops, there’s still no escaping the icy bitterness of washing our goods outside in the winter. There are times when ice crystals form on the kale as we work to make bunches or the hoses in our wash stations have frozen solid, stalling the ability to clean our muddy yield. Despite the cold, we persevere – if sometimes that means jumping up and down and dancing to keep warm. Toiling away with icy fingers and numbingly chilled toes is just a part of what we do. Líz, our crew leader, tries to convince us that this work will make us tough and our bones stronger. And, in so many ways, she’s right. There’s no way soft-skinned city slickers can keep up with us – we’re as tough the leeks that thrive in snow and ice. And, as Clayton likes to repeat, “Nothing’s too bad with the right attitude and company.”

Produce at the winter market stand. PHOTO BY CLAYTON BURROWS

Produce at the winter market stand. PHOTO BY CLAYTON BURROWS

At sunset, we rejoice in the close of another work day, with thoughts of heading home for warmth and rest. We’re thankful to still have work this time of year, but even more grateful for a season of semi-rest. These cold, dark days are a gift – a way to replenish and renew. We quietly ready ourselves for the warmer months when rest won’t come so easy.

Kristi Roberts is the CSA Farm Manager and veggie picker at Growing Washington. Her hobbies include running, kayaking, clay sculpting and her blue heeler/border collie mix Temple. For more information about Growing Washington see www.growingwashington.org.

Published in the February 2016 issue of Grow Northwest

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