Winter Comes to Riverhill Farm
Morning comes late to our growing fields these days. Although we’ve passed the Winter Solstice and day length is increasing, the sun still follows a flat arc low across the southeastern sky, making for a prolonged twilight dawn of grays and blacks before the farm colors up with the rising sun. The contrast between the areas of farm in shadow and those in brilliant winter light is accented by persistent frost which only disappears as the first rays of sun warm the soil.
The relative ease of winter work on the farm affords my wife, Jo, and me the time to take a morning cup of coffee outside on a sunny morning and watch the birds work for their food. We’re glad for the chance to spend some time watching others work.
I’m not sure whether you’d consider it the last act of last season or the first act of next, but before taking a much needed Fall break in December, we set about planting garlic for next summer. Down on our knees, we pushed the garlic cloves into the soil—8,000 times—knowing that each clove is to become a full head of garlic. Fall farming is like that: There’s comfort in the relaxed pace of planting, harvest more than eight months away. Working in the warm sun over the fragrant soil, lazy thoughts can find their own way without the pressure of a to-do list staring us down. In November, still working in t-shirts, it would have been unlikely for thoughts of winter to intervene. We still owed our allegiance to summer. These days, the emerging garlic straps show up as green stripes in a field of snow.
One of the great pleasures of winter on the farm comes with clear skies after snowfall. On a cold crisp morning before thaw, I wander around the fence lines following the tracks of all the creatures that use our fields for their own purposes during the night while we sleep. Bobcat, fox, raccoon and skunk all find their way in, either up one side of a wooden fence post and down the other, or through the wider openings in the woven wire. We build fence to exclude the herbivores—deer and rabbits—that might compete with us for the food we grow, but excluding the lesser predators can be an unintended and undesirable consequence of fencing. The persistence of these small predators in using our fields despite the fencing may account for the scarcity of gophers and ground squirrels we’ve had to contend with, critters that are the bane of many a farmers’ existence.
While digging a trench recently, I paused to catch my breath and noticed some fresh scat at the base of a fencepost. The scat was held together by short fur and small white bones--an owl’s signature, most likely. We’ve seen the Great Horned Owl working the fields at evening twilight and occasionally in the headlights of the truck as we drive in or out after dark. The bones and fur were not the only contents of the scat, however. A surprise was the partially dismembered body of a Jerusalem Cricket. I occasionally unearth a Jerusalem Cricket while I’m digging around in the fields, especially while harvesting potatoes. Despite one of their common names—potato bug—they don’t eat potatoes, but they do burrow deeply during the day. Their habits above ground are mostly nocturnal, making them a likely target for an opportunistic owl.
Predators from the surrounding woodland keep rodents in check, and pollinators such as the bumblebee, a ground dweller that depends on undisturbed soil for its burrows, work through our flowering crops and ensure the success of our harvest. Hungry wasps can be found wherever there are clusters of aphids, and countless beneficial insects find prey in our crops as well as nectar in our ornamental flowers. All this helps to make the farm a thriving ecosystem in its own right, but also serves to underscore our farm’s dependence on a healthy and diverse environment outside the farm fence.
We’ve come to understand these fields through observation and experience. We’ve borrowed them for our use from the surrounding woodland to satisfy our hometown’s need for food, but they work best when the separation between farm and woodland is as permeable as possible. There’s fallacy and perhaps some risk involved in thinking that thriving organic farms can exist as islands for the production of our healthful food while we disregard our responsibility to our rivers, forests and mountains beyond the farm gate.
Alan Haight, Riverhill Farm, Nevada City