The Groundhog Is Still In Bed

The first year I attended college in California my grandmother called to ask what my groundhog had predicted.

“Grandma, there are no groundhogs out here,” I told her.

“How will you know if spring is going to be early or late?” she asked in all seriousness. From then on, I could look forward to a call from grandma every February 2nd to announce the determination of the spring’s official prognosticator.

The groundhog was always spring lore in my family, but I never paid much attention to it until after returning east to farm and finding a huge groundhog hole freshly excavated inside one of the stalls of the barn on Groundhog Day. I didn’t care about his shadow, only the condition of my barn.

Groundhogs are big rodents—think a fifteen-pound short-tailed rat with a prominent overbite. That means they make big holes, actually burrows, which are a series of holes that can encompass an area of several square yards including chambers for hiding, hibernating, birthing, mating and excreting. Digging their burrows results in piles of dirt and rock around each hole. Running over one of these unexpectedly with farm equipment can be dangerous and damaging. Larger livestock, such as horses and cattle can injure themselves by stepping in holes, and smaller animals can become caught, unable to extricate themselves. And they can be hell on a septic system causing thousands of dollars in damage.

Primarily herbivores, very clean and perfectly sized for a crock pot, I took the time to hunt, clean and cook one. It had the consistency and taste of roast beef, but the aftertaste? My dining companion remarked that even a menthol cigarette couldn’t erase it. Despite their proliferation, there’s a reason they aren’t showing up on adventuresome locavore menus.

But why February 2nd?

Since my first encounter with my groundhog, I’ve kept track of burrows on the farm noting their activity on my annual calendar each year. Their appearance is always within the week on either side of that magical date which also happens to be the half-way point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

The belief that if the groundhog sees his shadow on this day there will be six more weeks of winter and if not spring will come early traces its roots to Greek and Roman festivals marking the crossroads between winter and spring, groundhog lore gained footing in northern Europe as farmers noted the appearance of hibernators, such as badgers and hedgehogs, as signs of impending spring which they used as a guide for planting crops.

With the profusion of German immigrants, including my ancestors, to the central Pennsylvania region in early America, it’s easy to see how the groundhog became their harbinger of spring. However, they are not emerging from their winter hibernation to be the center of attention to a bunch of men in tuxedoes and top hats watching for signs of a shadow. Actually, the groundhog’s awakening has nothing to do with the weather. It’s all about…SEX.

Think of it as Valentine’s Day for hibernators. It’s not just the groundhogs plowing through the bean field. With red foxes, the vixens are screaming for the tods to come hither—a frightful noise. The next sign, even more reliable than the groundhog is the skunk. A whiff of the familiar musk is a sure bet the days are growing longer and warmer.

As society has urbanized, our folklore is often lost in context, but in an agrarian setting makes perfect sense. I’ve been watching my groundhog holes (there’s a big one under my porch) and so far, I haven’t seen any action. If I were a groundhog, I would have stayed in bed on February 2nd this year, too! Although famous Phil of Punxsutawney is calling for an early spring, I think I’m going to side with mine this year.

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I said HAY, bartender

“So…your animals are grass-fed,” chimed the gentleman. Perhaps he’d been reading one of those modern farming magazines that talked about vegetarian-fed chickens who wear little hand-knitted sweaters in the winter to keep them warm. I wanted to respond with, “pardon me,” but instead was gifted with the idea for Dishing the Dirt.

Note: at a farmers market where you are purchasing raw materials (and hopefully value-added products, too) from a farm, chances are strong that the person you are talking to is the owner/farmer or at the very least, works on the farm helping to grow what you are about to eat.

“When there is snow on the ground, what do your animals eat?” the gentleman asked.

“Hay,” I responded.

“But you just said your animals were grass-fed,” he retorted somewhat huffily.

Hay versus Straw

I’ve noticed that non-farmers use these terms interchangeable. I’ve also witnessed new and beginning farmers making the very expensive mistake of bedding their livestock with premium second-cutting grass hay unaware of the difference.

Simply put, hay is what is fed to the animals and straw is what you bed them with.

In the winter as well as any other time of the year when pastures are inaccessible, hay is fed to the animals. What! The animals are not out in the pastures year-round? Nope.

Hooves (the feet) of cows, sheep, goats and pigs are cloven, meaning split into two. They are also sharp. When they move throughout the pastures their feet dig into the ground pressing organic material, including seeds, into the soil with minimal damage. Some pasture grasses benefit from stresses of being trampled and eaten, signaling them grow. But in the winter when the plants go dormant (when they don’t grow), constant grazing and foot traffic can quickly turn a once-verdant pasture into a mud lot causing damage that could take several growing seasons to repair.

So, what do we do in the winter? We shut the gates to what is often referred to as a “sacrifice lot” and feed hay that has been baled (harvested) on our own farms or purchased from other farmers. This happens at other times during the year when pastures are too wet or flooded, too.

Straw is what is used for bedding. Just as its namesake, the stalks of harvested grains such as wheat and oats are hollow, the airspace creating insulating and wicking properties to help keep the animals warm and dry. Although the animals will chew on straw, picking through it to nibble at any unharvested seed heads, straw has no nutritional value.

Straw is also used by vegetable growers as mulch to insulate tender plants from cold and to create a barrier against weeds.

Straw is often mistaken for hay by the general public as many “hayrides” seats are actually straw bales. Straw tends to be yellow in color while hay is green, however, hay bales left out in the sun can bleach to a yellow color, but that doesn’t make them straw.

For most people, there is no difference between hay and straw, but during this brutal polar vortex weather, I’m counting on both to keep the animals dry, warm and well-fed.

Farming in a Polar Vortex

If last week was the first taste of winter, this week was an unwanted second helping. Two weeks without market, I’m started to feel furloughed by Mother Nature.

The weatherman has been lying to me for years, but Saturday night he erred in the opposite direction, with me receiving more snow than promised. Had I been able to reach the state road two miles away, I would have made it to market, but snow in the driveway alone exceeded the van’s clearance. As my second marketless Sunday advanced, to clear the driveway required two people plowing for three hours to make it to the end of the lane. And that was the easy part.

By sunset, temperatures had dropped into the teens. Winds gusted to 40 mph, pushing the feels like number further into the negative teens.

Supportive texts from customers chirped, “Stay warm!” but a few questioned, “What do you do when it gets this cold?”

There’s no option to call in sick or take a vacation day. I can joke about feeling like a federal worker because I, too, must work without getting paid. Unfortunately, I think the weather will break before the impasse in the Senate.

The first step in dealing with sub-zero temperatures is to be properly outfitted. I am a firm believer there is no such thing a bad weather, only being improperly dressed. To work outside, my sub-freezing repertoire includes two wool hats, a fleece headband and fleece neck gaiter that doubles as a balaclava. The outer hat with horns may be funny, but the extended hood creates a draft-free seal tucked inside the collar of my Patagonia shell/fleece coat which has worn well as my winter go-to gear for over twenty years. Similarly, a technical turtleneck in the most garish color of turquoise I scored at the annual parking lot sale at Patagonia when I lived near their headquarters in southern California gets pulled out along with a bright red wool/cotton LL Bean union suit. Combined with a pair of insulated bib overalls, I can work for several hours in the worst weather winter can toss at me without being chilled.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still cold as my feet and hands constantly remind me. Sure, I add a nice set of thin wool glove liners to the flannel lined leather gloves, but there is always an unexpected chore requiring the dexterity of bare hands that leave my fingers stinging from the bitter cold. And feet, they bear the brunt of it all. Despite neoprene vulcanized on an inch of rubber tread, the icy ground manages to penetrate through to two pair of socks, a thin technical pair favored by ice climbers and the other a thick pair made of alpaca wool. Sometimes I also toss an air-activated handwarmer in each boot’s toe, too. To top off the whole ensemble, a set of Yak Trax so I don’t slip on the ice, of which there is plenty.

Winter preparation doesn’t stop with clothing. Exposed areas of my face get a slathering of rendered lard instead of typical face cream that contains water. Coconut oil works too, but I prefer to smell like chicharrones instead of a piña colada.

Perhaps the most critical step in an arctic blast is planning. With five different weather apps on my phone, I’ve got a decent idea of what to expect and when. Armed with this information and past experience, I have found it to be less infuriating to deal proactively with cold-related issues that are akin to chasing one’s tail: not having enough feed, critical diesel engine equipment without a block/oil heater, and watering systems that rely on hoses are unable to be insulated or heated and source from standard spigots, which are subject to freezing tight and breaking and my personal pet peeve.

Animals will consume twice as much hay and water to stay warm, so I set out as much feed that is needed to get the animals through the coldest nights and check on the water situation several times a day. Watering is always the last thing that gets done when it comes to chores in sub-zero temperatures. Something always happens that results in a wet glove or splashed clothing which freezes stiff within minutes. Better to be wet for only the time it takes to walk from the barn to the house instead of for the full duration of chores.

The animals aren’t the only ones needing to be sufficiently hydrated and well fed. This is the time of year I break out the stash of marrow bones and rendered goose fat—high octane fuel for staying warm. Working outside in the dry cold, it’s easy to become dehydrated, so as soon as I shed my gear when I get back to the house, the kettle gets turned on for a big mug of my favorite from Pearl Fine Teas, which now is a chai I can bump up with coconut milk for more energy.

Did I mention the sheep are also having babies? Lambs are born wearing their own wool sweaters and are the hardiest of babies, but in weather extremes being vigilant is a must.

So yes, I am staying warm even when keeping my customers fed requires working outside during a polar vortex. It’s just what farmers do.

 

The First Taste of Winter

Okay, I’ll admit it: I played on Sunday when there was no market. After all the animals were fed and watered and the new baby lambs counted and snuggled, I fueled up on a couple of roasted marrow bones, broke out the cross-country skis and took off across the fields. For a few hours I practiced my rhythm, got in the groove and pushed past my previous limits of the farm lane out into the big expanse of the neighboring dairy farm. Making it to the next tree row was my goal, and once I reached it, I stood there admiring the view and my accomplishment until my phone chirped the familiar sound from my weather app: snow starting in fifteen minutes.

Skiing home in the squall I recognized the dilemma of doing something fun in the harshness of inclement weather, kind of like farming and going to market. While I may be uncomfortable standing out in subfreezing conditions, I am content because of the customers who continue to support the weekly Central Farm Markets’ winter sessions. Now that winter hours have kicked in with markets starting at 10 a.m. instead of 9 a.m., harsh conditions are more tolerable.

But sometimes those conditions are too harsh, meaning the management of the markets uses common sense to ensure the safety of both vendors and customers by cancelling the markets. (Note: at Bethesda, when Montgomery County cancels school activities due to weather, the market must also close.)

I know there was disappointment last week, but when that second band of snow hit during my ski trek, had I gone to market I would have been cresting the mountain between Maryland and Pennsylvania along with my fellow farmers who travel that route.

We live in the mid-Atlantic, the Northeast, whatever you want to call it, but the reality is winter happens this time of year. Some years are mild and others, like this year according to the Capital Weather Gang, are going to twist us into a tangled mess of hats, scarves, gloves and insulated garments with polar vortices and nor’easters.

Since none of us have any control over the weather the best we can do is deal with it. Here are some tips about how you can make the most out of shopping at Central Farm Markets in the coming winter months.

  1. Stock up. Winter vegetables, such as squash, root vegetables and winter greens are built to last in cooler temperatures. When extended forecasts call for snow over the weekend, buy extra for the following week in case of a market closure.
  2. Stay in touch. Between the eBlast, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, website, TV and radio, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to show up to an empty parking lot and complain, “I didn’t know market was cancelled!”
  3. Remember winter markets start at 10 am. Please let us get set up before helping you. And if you absolutely must have what you need, offer the exact amount in cash as the credit card machines are often the last item to be set up as their batteries wear down faster in cold weather.
  4. Don’t be mad at us. Seriously, we don’t want to miss a market, however, we also don’t want to slide down the mountain or into a ditch on the icy, snowy secondary rural roads that are not as well maintained as city streets and highways.
  5. Dress for the Weather. When markets are open in frigid temperatures, put on those extra layers, hats and gloves and ASK your farmer if you don’t see something. They may have it covered or boxed to protect from cold damage.

Soup(er) Weather

We’ve been spoiled by the temperate weather these last few weeks, but winter will be making its way back to freezing temperatures by the end of this week. Frigid weather calls for a batch of soup. Even a culinary luddite can manage a meal made from scratch instead of a can when it comes to soup.

As eaters strive for more control over the ingredients of their meals—less salt, more flavor, spicier, no additives, no BPH—the simplicity of soup can provide several meals worth of food with minimal effort and ingredients. With a little extra effort, soups can go from fantastic to phenomenal. This week’s Dishing the Dirt is dedicated to upping your soup game.

Cooking soup is something that can be done in a single pot. Soup has been made for thousands of years in everything from tightly woven baskets into which hot stones are dropped into the liquid to state-of-the-art, water-jacketed steam kettles gently simmering ingredients to perfection.

Soups are indicative of specific geographies and cultures. From the Pennsylvania Dutch favorite, Chicken Corn Soup, to Vietnamese pho, the mere mention of a steaming bowl of goodness can be a dead giveaway of one’s heritage.

The base of soup is some type of liquid, most often stock or broth. People often ask me what the difference is between the two even though the terms are interchangeable in most recipes. Broth is made of a simple ingredient (meat/bones/vegetables) simmered and reduced to unlock flavors, fats and proteins, while stock includes additional ingredients such as herbs, spices and aromatics.

In bisques and chowders, dairy is added to create a creamy consistency and flavor. Vegetarian or vegan versions use puréed potato, cauliflower and other light-colored starchy vegetables to achieve a similar consistency and color without dairy.

Other liquids used in soup include vegetable juice, coconut milk, beer, wine, whey, cider and plain ol’ water.

To get a better idea of how to make amazing soup, I went to the expert at Central Farm Markets, Christine Ilich, owner of Heirloom Kitchen, who cooks up seasonal vegetarian soups using ingredients from other producers at market. Christine listed several tips for making great soups:

  • Fresh seasonal ingredients provide the best flavors.
  • Use fresh herbs whenever possible and add at the very end of cooking for the strongest flavor and best color. Herbs and spices can help you use less salt and still get good flavor. If you must use dried herbs, add during cooking to bring out the flavor.
  • Use good olive oil, single-source is best.
  • Good soups come from building flavors. Start with carrots, celery, onion (and garlic, if you like). Sauté in good olive oil (with a bit of water to help soften-the water will evaporate out), then add in other veggies, stock, seasonings.
  • Season soups with salt and pepper after the mixture comes to a boil, reduce to a simmer and always taste (!). Add salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar, and spices as needed.
  • With vegetable soups, make sure your veggies are tender but don’t overcook. You don’t want to make mush of beautiful, seasonal produce.
  • Beans and natural starches in the vegetables themselves thicken up soups. Even a few tablespoons of lentils or beans will thicken up a vegetable or meat soup nicely.
  • When prepping for soup, have all the veggies and herbs chopped and ready to go before you begin.
  • For vegetarian soups, puréed tomatoes add flavor and color, and mushrooms add a good ‘meaty’ flavor without meat.

And if you aren’t up for the challenge of making your own soup, each week Heirloom Kitchen offers a variety of freshly made, seasonal soups with ingredients sourced from Central Farm Markets growers.

 

Lists & Resolutions

The new year is upon us which means the R-word will make its annual appearance begging us to promise everything from the simplest of changes to the insurmountable. Humans have been making personal resolutions at the new year for over 4000 years. Records from ancient Babylon chronicled promises to the gods to be better in the following year. Now we pen them to paper and tack them to the refrigerator to get buried under take-out menus, recipes torn from magazines, and postcards from those who stuck to their goals of traveling more often.

Each year I make a list of ten things I hope to accomplish in the coming year—one for my business and the other more personal. I’ll be honest, there are items on my annual list that have been languishing away on paper for several years, yet I carry them over on January first as a reminder that I have not given up entirely.

Given that one of the top ten resolutions continues to be “eat healthier and lose weight,” inevitably some of those folks end up at the market announcing their intentions and asking if I, too, am making any. The public pronouncements of annual intentions were originally meant to encourage personal accountability, but I doubt there would be much appreciation if I were to point out the errs of another’s ways when I catch them eating ice cream for breakfast on a sweltering Sunday morning halfway into 2019.

While I may not go that far, one of my resolutions this year is to help you keep yours. In addition to showing up to market every week, I resolve to continue weekly with Dishing the Dirt to help customers make the most out of their market experience by drawing from the vast knowledge base of the Central Farm Markets family.

To help you get started on your list for the coming year, I’ve started one for everyone:

  1. Remember that Winter Market hours are 10 am to 1:30 pm for Bethesda Central and 10 am to 2 pm for Mosaic Central.
  2. Bring a reusable bag.
  3. Have lots of $1 and $5 bills instead of $20 and $50 bills when using cash.
  4. Sign up for the weekly market email and follow us on social media so in inclement weather you will be notified if the market is closed.
  5. Support the farmers who work hard to produce food and show up during winter markets.

And to sweeten the pot, don’t forget to pick up your Central Farm Markets Winter Loyalty Card at the market info tent, which rewards you for shopping during the winter months at our markets.

Happy New Year!

The Twelve Stands at Market

At the first stand at market my true love gave to me…an insulated bag.

At the second stand at market my true love gave to me…two loaves of bread that went into the insulated bag.

At the third stand at market my true love gave to me…three bags of salad, two loaves of bread that went into my insulated bag.

At the fourth stand of market my true love gave to me…four tubs of yogurt, three bags of salad, two loaves of bread that went into my insulated bag.

At the fifth stand at market my true love gave to me…five sa-la-mis! Four tubs of yogurt, three bags of salad, two loaves of bread that went into my insulated bag.

At the sixth stand at market my true love gave to me…six kinds of mushrooms, five sa-la-mis! Four tubs of yogurt, three bags of salad, two loaves of bread that went into my insulated bag.

At the seventh stand at market my true love gave to me…seven hand-made pastries, six kinds of mushrooms, five sa-la-mis! Four tubs of yogurt, three bags of salad, two loaves of bread that went into my insulated bag.

At the eighth stand at market my true love gave to me…eight links of sausage, seven hand-made pastries, six kinds of mushrooms, five sa-la-mis! Four tubs of yogurt, three bags of salad, two loaves of bread that went into my insulated bag.

At the ninth stand at market my true love gave to me…nine colorful carrots, eight links of sausage, seven hand-made pastries, six kinds of mushrooms, five sa-la-mis! Four tubs of yogurt, three bags of salad, two loaves of bread that went into my insulated bag.

At the tenth stand at market my true love gave to me…ten Honey Crisp apples, nine colorful carrots, eight links of sausage, seven hand-made pastries, six kinds of mushrooms, five sa-la-mis! Four tubs of yogurt, three bags of salad, two loaves of bread that went into my insulated bag.

On the eleventh stand at market my true love gave to me…eleven heirloom tomatoes, that were grown in a greenhouse, ten Honey Crisp apples, nine colorful carrots, eight links of sausage, seven hand-made pastries, six kinds of mushrooms, five sa-la-mis! Four tubs of yogurt, three bags of salad, two loaves of bread that went into my insulated bag.

At the twelfth stand at market my true love gave to me…twelve artisan cheeses, eleven heirloom tomatoes, that were grown in a greenhouse, ten Honey Crisp apples, nine colorful carrots, eight links of sausage, seven hand-made pastries, six kinds of mushrooms, five sa-la-mis! Four tubs of yogurt, three bags of salad, two loaves of bread that went into my insulated bag.

Ok, so you may need two insulated bags. According to Forbes, this year’s original twelve gifts has an estimated price tag of $34,558.65, but if you shop at Central Farm Markets, our twelve gifts will cost you a fraction of that and will easily fit in your car or even your bike!

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Artificial Availability

Responding to an invitation for a holiday party that would require an overnight stay in Bethesda, I warned my hosts that it may not be possible given that lambing and kidding season has started. “What? I thought they had their babies in the spring,” they replied and once again I had to remind them that if they wanted a plump leg-of-lamb worthy of their spring holiday celebration be it Passover or Easter that I needed to be having babies now.

Dishing the Dirt had this conversation last year when we talked about tomatoes in December. Thanks to modern greenhouse technologies, we can have quite a bit of locally grown produce year-round at Central Farm Markets. However, few understand that the same dynamics of artificial seasonality are also at work with livestock production.

Livestock can be consumed at just about every point in their lives. Size and age are often dependent upon cultural geography more than any other factor. Having a diverse customer base, I’ve had to learn to adjust breeding schedules to have the right size at the right time. This is easier said than done.

Certain breeds (especially heritage breeds) within species can be seasonal breeders, meaning they are only sexually active at certain times of the year. Farmers have selectively bred animals for generations to alleviate seasonal breeding so that no matter what time of the year females are exposed to males, they will ovulate and conceive.

Farmers and food purveyors often advertise no added hormones in their marketing in regards to synthetic implants to increase weight gain and milk production. However, hormones are also routinely used in artificial insemination and estrus synchronization so all the animals can be bred and birth within a similar window of time and to assist in birthing. This allows for year-round breeding on the farmers’ and customers’ schedules – not Mother Nature’s .

While lambing and kidding in late fall/early winter can muck up my end-of-the-year party plans, it does have multiple advantages. First, there are no flies, less pressure from parasites and (hopefully) less mud due to freezing temperatures. This results in healthier young that grow well. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but young lambs will mimic their mothers’ feeding habits. With access to tender green grass which is high in natural sugars and water content, lambs will fill up with forage as opposed to milk. Hay is not as palatable, so lambs to prefer their mother’s milk for sustenance.

But it’s not only beef, sheep, goats and pigs who are subject artificial seasonality. Poultry – both meat birds and egg layers – must be coaxed into year-round production.

Everyone loves a tender, plump bird, but there’s a reason you won’t find fresh pastured poultry at markets this time of the year – it’s freezing cold outside. Commercial poultry production has resorted to raising birds indoors in a climate-controlled environment. Pasture-raised poultry can either eat to grow or eat to stay warm, but they can’t do both. In the late spring, through summer and early fall, meat birds will grow to market weight in six to eight weeks when housed outdoors with access to bugs, grubs, worms, beetles and an occasional snake or mouse (yes, chickens are ruthless hunters with excellent eyesight and a lightning-fast beak) along with a well-balanced feed. But those birds in early spring or late fall may require an extra week or two to put on enough weight to make a decent meal. In cold, wet weather, the birds won’t grow at all no matter how much you feed them – a losing proposition for everyone.

Then there are eggs, everyone’s favorite. Winter egg production starts dropping off in fall as daylight and temperatures decrease. For optimal laying, chickens need at least 14 hours of daylight. Commercial egg houses (both caged and cage-free) can artificially eliminate seasonality with heat and light. They also use breeds that have been specifically bred for production. We’re coming up on the shortest days of the year combined with bitter cold and I can guarantee that the ladies will choose expending their energy on staying warm instead of laying eggs.

As a farmer, I strive to provide my livestock with as natural a life as possible, but at the same time must balance consumer demand and a need to make a living. And my social life? The animals always come first.

Gentle Reminders

Humans are creatures of habit – park in the same spot, hit the same vendors, buy the usual goods, linger for a visit with your favorite farmers. The holidays have begun. Shoppers are picking up a little extra for company, and gifts – that amazing wedge of aged farmstead cheese from Virginia, a bottle of crafted vinegar, a kitchen towel, some yarn.

Regulars. You know who you are. The ones who show up in the foulest of weather year-round, greeting the vendors by name. This is a friendly reminder that it is time to consider not only the end of Central Farm Markets’ Saturday markets for the season, but also that of other seasonal markets in the region. There are over fifty seasonal markets that dwindle to a handful operating during the winter.

Combined with the end of market season for several major fresh fruit and vegetable vendors, it’s time for the annual shock of just-where-did-all-of-these-people-come-from for the year-round markets at Bethesda and Mosaic.

The bottom line: get to the markets early, even when the weather is miserable.

Mother Nature isn’t exactly in tune with the cycles of consumers, dialing back on the bounty as shoppers’ demands become concentrated.

As one of the original winter market vendors, I’ve witnessed the ebb and flow of annual traffic over the years. Last week I saw faces at market I hadn’t seen since Pike and Westfield opened in the spring. Market vendors will be scrambling to estimate the new weekly demands of new shoppers on top of the additional uptick from holiday shopping.

Trust me, it’s just as uncomfortable for producers to say, “sorry, I’m already out,” as your disappointment in missing out on your favorite yogurt or salad.

If you absolutely can not get to market until later in morning, ask your favorite vendors about pre-ordering. This is a win-win deal all around. Producers are confident they have enough product to meet their most ardent customers’ needs and have X-amount already sold, no matter the meteorological conditions. That said, please don’t pre-order and then not show up.

Similarly, with the impending holidays it is prudent to talk to your favorite vendors ahead of time about large or special orders. By ahead of time, I mean one or two weeks…not an email at 8 PM on Saturday night.

Congestion at times is inevitable, but just remember that your fellow shoppers are also supporting regional farms and producers. Both Bethesda and Mosaic have ample free parking. If you are unable to carry all your purchases back to your vehicle, Central Farm Markets provides concierge services at the Information tent.

There is a lot of patience and sharing out there as many times I’ve witnessed two complete strangers cutting in half the last loaf of bread. But whatever you do, don’t show up five minutes before the market closes and get angry because there isn’t a single egg left for sale.

Welcome to market in the winter.

First Freeze

Farmers mark their trips around the sun not by the Gregorian calendar or even the astrological designations of the season. We adjust our endeavors according to the weather. Thanksgiving this year is a prime example – it was the first extended period of sub-freezing temperatures designated as the first hard freeze.

Mother Nature usually gives a warning, reminding us it’s time to take care of the infrastructure, especially anything having to do with water. We’ve dipped into the twenties briefly overnight, but the days warm to as much as the high 50’s. I‘ve seen as low as 22 degrees when leaving for market on a Sunday morning, but by the time I arrived home I’d shed four layers.

There are light frosts signaling the picking of tender greens and fruit as early as October, followed by a killing frost which is when all bets are off for most outside row crops. Some farmers ward off the worst of winter weather using insulating mulch, floating row covers, greenhouses or a combination of the three providing nearly year-round production.

“Arugula and spinach are tough!” said Audrey Fisher Pedersen, co-owner and farmer of Bending Bridge Farm whose greens survived a two-week stretch of below zero temperatures.

As a livestock producer, sometimes I feel as if I have my own crystal ball to what winter will bring. When the animals start growing their winter coats in early September it’s a signal to start projects that need to be done prior to the onset of colder weather. The years that the critters don’t fuzz up until December; an ominous warning there will be little skiing.

All farmers rely on water. To grow crops, water livestock and process products, access to affordable, clean water is the backbone of our industry. But water also requires additional equipment to facilitate its use. There are hydrants, hoses, pumps, wells, tanks and valves. Being unprepared for the hard freeze can cause significant damages if the expanding water splits man-made materials. Not only can these repairs be expensive, they also require an all-stop in order to be fixed.

Stock tank heater

With the advent of the hard freeze comes the deployment of my favorite critical little device that prevents stock tanks from freezing. Last year when the barn was rewired, I was adamant about an all-weather electrical outlet installed on the exterior closest to the large, communal galvanized stock tank. How I do love thee!

Over the years I’ve fought with contractors about dropping electrical lines in the same trench as a water pipe being run out to an area for watering livestock. This is also the most proffered advice to new farmers building out their operation. This is the voice of experience.

Too many times I’ve watched as nearly solid hundred-gallon tanks have had holes beaten through the top with a sledge-hammer only to discover when the weather warms that the ice has spit the tank rendering it useless. They are not cheap to replace.

There are hacks for insulating water tanks, but this works better for larger animals such as cattle and horses. For small ruminants, like sheep and goats, and poultry a large tub inside a tractor tire filled with concrete and foam does not bode well. And pigs! Watering pigs when temperatures don’t rise above freezing for several days in a row can severely try a farmer’s patience.

But with an outdoor power outlet, a thirty dollar gadget from Tractor Supply and a short length of hose that can easily be removed and drained once the tank is full, frigid weather becomes a little less miserable. If all else fails, it’s a bucket brigade in lieu of the gym.

Frozen mud

For a few days I was able to enjoy walking on solid, albeit frozen ground. Then temperatures went back into the 40’s and the mud returned, but HARD FREEZE was written on the 2018 calendar as a record to compare to years past in years to come.

If you want to learn more about farming cold weather, chat up your vendors at Central Farm Markets in Bethesda and Mosaic during the Winter Market months from January through March. We’ll always have a story to tell.