Winter Offers Little Respite for R.I. Farmers

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

As winter envelops New England, our growing season comes to an end, but the lack of crops that need tending and harvesting most certainly doesn’t mean that Rhode Island farmers take an extended vacation. In fact, there is just as much work to be done on the farm in the fall and winter as there is in the height of the summer, if not more.

Cold crops
“Running a farm takes a great deal of planning,” said Pat Gardiner of S&P Gardiner Farm in Wakefield. “In the summer we plan multiple croppings and in the winter we plan our approach for next year.”

That means paying attention to trends in the business, as well as trends in what your customers want. But that’s not the only work to be done before old man winter descends. For the folks at S&P Gardiner, that meant really dialing back their production of flowers and ornamentals the past few years, as the economy has shrunk.

A lot of equipment and infrastructure maintenance and upgrades are performed in the fall and winter. Sealing leaks on greenhouses and high tunnels must be completed before any crops can be transplanted from the field or beds. Farm equipment must be maintained and, sometimes, replaced.

Beds that are dormant must be covered with agricultural cloth to retain some heat and prevent erosion. Areas that are too big to use agricultural cloth, or are prone to erosion, are planted with cover crops such as winter rye.

Gardiner said she’s lucky to get a week off during the winter. “There is so much behind-the-scenes work that most people don’t think about," she said. On any given winter day, the cold weather doesn’t keep Gardiner and her family from mending fences, cleaning up the fields or preparing for one of the winter farmers’ markets that Gardiner said have "saved a lot of farms and small businesses in Rhode Island.”

S&P Gardiner farm also benefits from the direct sales that it makes to local markets such as Belmont’s and even the local Shaw’s. Gardiner's farmstand also is open year-round, which affords the farm a bit more income throughout the winter.

Frozen meat
Rhode Island’s producers of cattle, hogs, goats, sheep and all manner of fowl shift gears during the winter as well. While their production, for the most part, doesn’t come to a complete standstill, practices certainly change with the weather. In many cases, winter operating costs are higher than in the summer.

For example, a grass-fed beef operation such as Aquidneck Farms in Portsmouth relies on the natural grasses on its land for feed during the summer. In the winter, however, ruminants such as cows and sheep are fed dry hay and silagw — a fermented, high-moisture fodder made from whole grain crops.

“Unfortunately,” said Barbara Van Beuren, owner of Aquidneck Farms, “we have to purchase much of our feed to get the herd through the winter.”

Add the cost of feed to a season that sees fewer slaughterings and fewer steaks for sale, and profits take a major dip in the winter.

The added cost of feed during the winter affects poultry farms in the same way. During milder weather, chickens and turkeys happily scratch through the dirt and grass for insects, grubs and seeds. The birds don’t have this luxury in the winter, and farmers can see their feed costs double or more.

Goat farms — most of which raise goats for milk and not for meat — have another issue with which to contend: pregnancy. The winter months are the breeding, or kidding, season for goats, and they produce little milk during their five-month gestation period.

“The goats go from producing up to five gallons of milk a day to about one gallon a day,” said Miriah Reynolds, who helps raise the goats on her folks’ farm, The Reynolds Barn Hobby Farm in North Kingstown. “Fortunately, we have our soaps and lotions to carry us through the winter.”

Regardless of the boom in Rhode Island’s agricultural community, the cold winter months still stand to break many of our local farmers. They need our support at the farmers’ markets year-round. Consider joining your local farm's community-supported agriculture program. These programs give farmers an influx of cash before the growing season begins to ensure a successful summer and a tolerable winter.